The Graduation Trap

Now that even Washington acknowledges that a dependence on just test scores to rate schools is deceptive, the solution adopted in most states has been to add a couple more metrics. Teacher training, teacher evaluation based on those same test scores, student attendance rates and graduation rates are now part of the ratings.  For most parents though, none of these are the critical factors in how they would assess their children's schools. They want to know how good the teaching in the classroom is, how safe the school environment is, what opportunities are available for their kids, and whether the school is responsive to their needs. But those aren't so easily quantifiable.

But for high schools, graduation and dropout rates are the new big deal. If too many students don't graduate in four years, the school is penalized. Like most over-weighted metrics used for evaluation though, put too much emphasis on this one number and schools will compromise other factors to raise their scores.

Problems with the Measurement

First of all, there are several measurements.  There's the federal graduation rate measurement, the
NCES. That measures how many of the year's enrolled seniors successfully graduated.  One measure. Then there's the dropout rate. The dropout rate looks at how many students left without re-enrolling elsewhere or completing in a given year.  The third measure is Oregon's Cohort Graduation Rate. The Cohort Rate looks at everyone who ever enrolled (over 4 years) in the graduating class and how many of those successfully graduated.  

To give you an idea how confusing all this can be, for my high school (650 students) in 2009, the NCES graduation rate was 89%, the dropout rate was 2.4% and the cohort graduation rate just 59.8%. Now how could the graduation rate of the same class show up as both 89% and 59%? That's the wonder of modern education statistics.

Oregon's cohort system is the newer measure, touted as the better way to truly track completion. When we first learned of this tool, we thought it would look at all of our entering freshmen (about 160 in a typical year at NVHS) and then look at how many graduated (about 130 in a typical year). But it's way more complex than that.  Oregon counts every student who EVER enrolled as a member of that class, even if they enrolled the last month of their senior year. A highly transient population will necessarily give a low cohort graduation rate whereas a more stable suburban one a lower rate. 

This was clear when the same 2009 statistics counted 227 students in NVHS' cohort class, implying a school population of 900 students.  That included students who were enrolled mid-year by their parents (perhaps as required for public assistance or by the courts), but never attended a day of classes. It included students expelled from other schools who were credit deficient and given the opportunity to attend our alternative programs. It included everyone who walked through the door, regardless of whether the school had a chance to get them to an on-time graduation or not.

Problems with the Fixes
So how do schools improve their graduation rates?  Here are some of the ways local schools have done it:
1.  Create a separate alternative school (not part of the regular high school) that will house most of the credit-deficient students.  Its rate will be abominable but the main high school will look good.
2.  Find ways to refuse to admit transfer students with credit issues.  It's easy to reject students expelled from other districts, but appearing unwelcoming and unaccommodating can also persuade families to look elsewhere.
3.  Encourage students to enroll in one of the online charter schools instead, a way to catch up on credits.
4.  Don't be too persnickety about transcript evaluation.  My counselors double-checked everything, making sure the retaken English I class didn't count as two English credits, for example.  School software programs make plenty of errors (few are actually created by school folks; ours was actually a Canadian transplant that didn't fit many realities of American schools). A few students (enough to tweak a statistic) might graduate on time if certain factors were overlooked.
5.  Make credit make-up easy.  We toughened ours in 2006 so that making up a failed class was more similar to passing the actual class.  Before that, it was pretty simple.
So when you hear complaints about "dumbing down" education, look to the ways schools have had to respond to the pressures imposed from the outside.

When the state began grading schools for their student attendance rates, secondary schools in many districts stopped recording attendance every period and only took it once a day.  Cheating scandals that have rocked other states have not surfaced in Oregon, but nationally we are chided for not having a statewide cheating detection system.  Instead, we rely on districts to self-police.
The Trap
The trap for high schools is when they focus on tweaking the numbers instead of improving their students' experiences. Just as we saw with high stakes testing, education changes when you impose rigid measurements on it. School leaders change what they do -- not so much to help students, but to help the numbers look better.

We push everyone to finish in four years instead of treating each student as an individual. In Slow Down, Speed Up I wrote about how other advanced nations -- the ones that come out on top on international tests -- have up to a quarter of their 19-21 year olds still enrolled in high school. Others are finished by 16. Should we be measuring how many ultimately finish instead of how many finish in the magic 4-year time frame?

So do we stop collecting the data?  We can still collect the data, but we have to remove the shame and punishment that attach to high poverty schools as the data is taken out of context. Each year, the lowest scoring schools are also the highest poverty schools.  Those in the most affluent communities fare well. Yet what we do to "fix" those low-performing schools only worsens education there for the students who most need a well-rounded education. (See School Report Cards Widen the Gap between Rich and Poor Schools
It's helpful to know our graduation and dropout rates. But pretending that anything we do to improve them is a good thing is a trap.