The most recent school system reporting a higher graduation rate than it deserved—in the District of Columbia—is just the latest example in a growing case file of school systems where investigators have uncovered bogus graduation-rate practices.
Those revelations have unleashed a wave of questions about the pressures and incentives built into U.S. high schools, and fueled nagging doubts that states’ rising high school graduation rates—and the country’s current all-time-high rate of 84 percent—aren’t what they seem.
An investigation, ordered by the D.C. mayor’s office found that 34 percent of last year’s senior class got diplomas even though they’d missed too much school to earn passing grades, or attained too many credits through quick, online courses known as credit recovery. Only three months earlier, the school system touted a 20-point rise in its graduation rate over the last six years.
“It’s been devastating,” said Cathy Reilly, the executive director of the Senior High Alliance of Parents, Principals, and Educators in the District of Columbia. “It’s made people here feel that our graduation rate gains weren’t real.”
A National Problem
A federal audit also found that in the last few years, California and Alabama inflated their graduation rates by counting students they shouldn’t have counted. Media investigations showed that educators persuaded low-performing students in Atlanta and Orlando, Fla., to transfer to private or alternative schools to eliminate a strain on their home schools’ graduation rates.
This trend to change graduation-rates has opened the door to renewed attacks on the pressures imposed on schools by accountability rules. In the District of Columbia, for instance, high school teachers and principals are evaluated in part on their schools’ graduation rates. With those kinds of stakes, teachers can feel immense pressure to award passing grades to students who haven’t earned them, a dilemma that intensifies in schools with high rates of chronic absenteeism and academically struggling students.
In a survey of 616 District of Columbia teachers conducted after the scandal broke, 47 percent said they’d felt pressured or coerced into giving grades that didn’t accurately reflect what students had learned. Among high school teachers, that number rose to 60 percent. More than 2 in 10 said that their student grades or attendance data had been changed by someone else after teachers submitted them.
Scott Goldstein oversaw the survey as the founder of EmpowerEd, a year-old coalition of D.C. teachers that works to strengthen teacher leadership. To him, the results cry out for a new conversation about the “moral dilemmas” embedded in accountability systems that rely heavily on just a few metrics, like graduation rates.
“If you pass students [who haven’t completed course requirements], you’re leading them into a world they’re unprepared for. But if you fail them, you’re harming their lives in other ways,” said Goldstein, a social studies teacher at Roosevelt High School. Teachers’ decisions should rest on a professional appraisal of student mastery, not on fear for their own jobs, he said.
But even in school systems that don’t reward or penalize educators for their schools’ accountability metrics, teachers can feel immense pressure from administrators on their grading practices.
A Change of Approach
Education advocates who believe accountability can be a force for good worry that graduation-rate scandals could tarnish a tool that’s important for shining a light on inequities and applying pressure for school improvement.
They hope, instead, that uncovering problems can spark a rebalancing of the pressures and supports built into accountability systems, and change school practice to respond better to issues like students’ poor academic skills and chronic absenteeism.
“We shouldn’t stop paying attention to high school grad rates, or not have them in accountability systems,” said Michael Cohen, the president of Achieve, which works with states to raise academic expectations.
“The right response to all of this is to double down on efforts to support students, and to support teachers, early and consistently, so they’re not pressured to game the system and they can give kids what they need.”
‘Hard-Earned Gains’ Are Real
John Bridgeland, the chief executive officer of Civic Enterprises, a think tank that examines graduation rates for the annual “Grad Nation” reports, said his team has visited dozens of schools to find out what they’re doing to produce significant gains in their graduation rates.
In a few places, he said, he and his colleagues have had to shave 2 to 4 percentage points off the rates districts were reporting because they were improperly counting some types of students who shouldn’t be included, such as those who started home schooling in their junior year of high school. But with few exceptions, Bridgeland said, his team has found that “the hard work” of better instruction and student support explains higher graduation rates.
Those who study graduation-rate calculations point out that while they’re still imperfect, they’ve been much more reliable since 2008 when federal regulations began requiring all schools to calculate them the same way—the portion of each freshman class that earns regular diplomas four years later.
But even those experts acknowledge that there are still too many hidden variations in the way states report graduation-rate data and have quietly identified about a dozen variations that should be ferreted out and handled in uniform ways.
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