Sunday, February 23, 2014

Graduation Statistics in the News

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.

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