This week, the Strib reported that Minneapolis increased its graduation rate 51.8 percent in 2012 to just under 54 percent this year, and that black four-year graduation rates rose from 38 to 43.6 percent. The headlines reported that "Minneapolis posts steady gain in grad rate." Cool. In St. Cloud, our four year graduation rate remained virtually constant for all students at about 70 percent, while the black four-year rate rose 10 percent from 45 to 55 percent, the ELL rate (primarily recent Somali immigrants) rose 7 percent from 51 to 58 percent, and our special education graduation rate rose 7% from 42 to 49 percent. The St. Cloud Times issued a headline: "St. Cloud, Sauk Rapids graduation rates fall in 2013." This comparison shows how fickle the media's reportage on education statistics is and how misleading careless reading of statistics can be.
How is it possible that St. Cloud's graduation rate could be reported
as falling, when the three major subgroups targeted for achievement gap
improvement showed an average graduation rate increase of from 7 to 10
percent? In St. Cloud, as in the nation at large, growth in educational
performance is masked by the rising population of groups impacted by the
achievement gap. Reformers and anti government school types
consistently garble these statistics in order to mask performance gains.
The St. Cloud statistics show a closing of the graduation gap, and
significant increases in black, ELL and special ed grad rates, but the
growth in the percentage of students in the lower performing groups as
figured in the overall average allows the newspaper to report these
statistics as if the school district is failing to impact graduation
rates. Over and over again, we see this kind of reportage.
The Minnesota Department of Education now reports the 4-year graduation rate, which means that if a student needs an extra year to graduate, the rate reports that person as failing to graduate on time.
I'm not crowing about our performance. Our only two regular high
schools have 4-year graduation rates in the mid 80 percent range. We
would like to do a whole lot better, and we are implementing plans to do
that. Our district operates an Area Learning Center which collects
students from our own and surrounding districts, and most of these kids
are there because something is keeping them from graduating on time.
So they are reported as not graduating in the four year graduation rate
in St. Cloud's statistics, even if they are coming from another
district. So if a student transfers from another district to our ALC to
get extra help, that student is marked down as not graduating on time
in St. Cloud. Again, I'm not complaining, I''m just pointing out that
people are pretty careless with statistics these days, in the rush to
take every reported statistic that might support their favorite
prescription for school reform (or lack of it). Sometimes within 5
minutes of the posting of a statistics, people are already telling us
why those statistics support some conclusion.
So what I want
to say, using this as an example, is that the purpose of examining
statistics is to develop strategies for better results. If you don't
care to find out what's covered in the numbers, how the statistics are
defined, and what factors actually contributed to the results, then
that's using statistics in the same way that climate change deniers use a
hard cold freeze.
Our goal, in public education, is to graduate our students to excellence. The time that it takes to get them there should usually be at about age 18. But some teens are going to take a bit more time, and we shouldn't allow our fixation on statistics to blind us to that fact. Would you prefer that we rush a student who comes to us in 9th grade from a refugee camp speaking no English out the door at a pre-set age so that we can look good on the statewide statistics or get a better headline in the local newspaper? Maybe that student would be vastly more prepared for a career and for productive citizenship of we planned on taking an extra year or two, and focused not on the deadline, but rather on quality preparation.
If a student goes through a family crisis in 11th grade, and takes an extra year to graduate, is that a failure, or is that a great success? If a child with major disabilities needs two or three extra years to become independent and capable of self supporting work, should the politicians' need to create headlines drive our education plan for that student? Is the number of students graduating "on-time" as important as the number of students graduating with workforce ready and college ready skills? Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of changes that we can make in education to increase the number of students who graduate "on-time". But drawing a red line in a chart, and defining that line as the border between success and failure is not one of them.