How Much Do Graduation Rates Matter?

How Much Do Graduation Rates Matter? on ParentChat with Regina | Is there any more common sense statistic to measure the success of public schools than high school graduation rate? In reality, there are lots of decisions that go into how that rate is calculated—who counts and who doesn’t count and who can legitimately be taken out of the equation. Is there any more common sense statistic to measure the success of public schools than high school graduation rate? It certainly sounds simple and clear: What percent of the students who should have gotten a high school diploma actually got one? In reality, there are lots of decisions that go into how that rate is calculated—who counts and who doesn’t count and who can legitimately be taken out of the equation. But no one wants to see a headline like this for his or her own school district: “Chicago Public Schools downgrades four years of inflated graduation rates” (reported by Juan Perez, Jr., in the Chicago Tribune, October 2, 2015).

To start with, it sounds as though there might have been some funny business going on. “Inflated” doesn’t have a particularly good connotation. Maybe the funny business was really just a series of misinterpretations by school staff of the rules for figuring the graduation rate, but maybe it was a series of intentional steps designed to report a graduation rate higher than it actually was. For example, the inspector general for the Chicago Public Schools, who issued the report, pointed to a high school that counted students as “transfers” instead of “dropouts” when they left their high school to enroll in a GED program (an alternate route to earning a high school diploma for students who leave high school, for whatever reason, before getting a diploma).

The adjustments that had to be made in the Chicago count lowered the 2014 graduation rate from 69.4 percent of students to 66.3 percent of students. Yes, not such a big drop. And, in fact, the graduation rate had been going up a little bit each year for several years—even though all of those years saw a small drop, based on the recalculations—just as Mayor Rahm Emanuel claimed in his recent successful re-election bid. But, let’s be clear: All of those figures are a five-year graduation rate, not a four-year graduation rate, which is what you might have expected to see.

Once numbers are called into question, it is hard to believe any of them again. Should you feel somewhat more certain after the kind of audit that the inspector general did in Chicago? Probably so. Here is one point of comparison: The graduation rate for the New York City Public Schools was 64.2 percent in 2014—but that was a four-year graduation rate.

I can tell you that it is not easy to keep track of every student in every high school in a huge school district—or even in a small one. Or even in one school. I did that tracking for students in the high school I helped to co-found in New York City, and I calculated the graduation rate for our first class of students. It was important to us because we had created an innovative accelerated schedule that had students on a three-year—not four-year—path to completing all of their high school graduation requirements. We needed to know whether our ambitious program worked. It did. With average and below-average New York City public school students, we produced a three-year graduation rate of 65 percent with our first class of students. That graduation rate meant that we did in three years what the rest of the New York City public high schools, as a group, did in four years.

I can also tell you from experience that graduation rates mean a lot to most high schools and school districts—just as they do in Chicago. A colleague and I were once at a national meeting of high school administrators of innovative high school programs. We overheard one conversation about graduation rate, which ended something like this: “Well, when we have a student who is about to drop out, we just send that student home and count him as being homeschooled. So then he’s not a dropout!” It is conversations like that one that make some of us skeptical about data that school districts provide, especially when those data can be used to judge the education that the school district is providing.

It is time to take a close look at the graduation rate and how it is calculated for the students in your high school and in your school district (if you have more than one high school):

  • All parents: Ask your school board to have the superintendent explain how the graduation rate is calculated. Is the board satisfied with the graduation rate or not? How does it compare to the graduation rate in neighboring school districts or in similar school districts in the state or in the country? How does it compare to the state’s high school graduation rate? What is the trend in your district’s graduation rate—that is, is it going up, going down, or staying about the same? Make sure you understand whether it is a four-year or five-year rate. What does your district do to prevent students from dropping out? This discussion should be part of an open board meeting, but board members should have the opportunity to study background information before that meeting and to get the input of district administrators before and/or during the meeting.
  • High school parents: Ask your principal to discuss the graduation rate in your child’s high school. Where are dropouts going—to GED programs, to vocational training programs, to work, or somewhere else? How are parents kept informed if their child might be on a path to dropping out? What should parents do if they are worried that their child might drop out? How do dropouts and potential dropouts affect the rest of the school and its programs?

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Assessing Students’ Character Traits—You Bet

Assessing Students’ Character Traits—You Bet on ParentChat with Regina: Getting Control of What Matters in Education | http://parentchatwithregina.org/The Walton Family Foundation is spending $6.5 million to help researchers figure out how to assess students’ character. The Foundation says that the grants are in “the emerging field of character research” (according to a well-reported article in the September 17 online edition of Education Week by Evie Blad).

Some of that grant money went to Professor Angela Duckworth, who has done exceptional work at the University of Pennsylvania on personal traits that make a difference in student success, including “grit.” Grit is exactly what you think it is—the willingness to dig down and do what it takes to accomplish something, even when things don’t work out the first time.

I first looked at Professor Duckworth’s research about four years ago when I was working with a high school that I co-founded in New York City. The principal, the teachers, and I were troubled by some of our students’ lack of concern about their work and their behavior. For example, they didn’t do their homework. It wasn’t that it was too hard or that there was too much of it. They just didn’t feel like doing it. Our students weren’t geniuses, even though ours was an Early College high school and the students were on a fast track to graduation (in just three years instead of four). They were average New York City kids—no better, no worse—and we all felt they could care a little more and work a little harder. Parents, perhaps you have students like this in your children’s schools or perhaps you have one at home.

Chris Aguirre, our remarkable principal, and I came up with the idea of a checklist to judge our students’ personal traits—at least, the ones that could be displayed in school and that were important for school success. After working with our teachers and testing out several versions of our checklist, we came up with what we referred to as our “Character Rubric.” It is undoubtedly not as scientifically correct as the work that will come out of the Foundation’s $6.5 million, but it worked. It was a way for teachers to judge students on six important traits—traits that we all felt would make a difference in their ability to succeed in school and later in life. As we said about our students in the introduction to our Character Rubric, “Without these character traits, all of their intellectual achievements cannot make them college ready and career ready.”

Teachers rated each student twice in each semester, using a rather simple scale from 0 to 3 to indicate how often the student exhibited each trait (not at all, rarely, sometimes, or usually). We also gave teachers examples of student behaviors that defined each trait so that we could agree on what teachers were looking for when making their judgments. For instance, “Is diligent” (our version of “grit”) came with behavior examples like “Does whatever it takes to complete an assignment,” “Finishes what he or she starts,” “Keeps trying in the face of difficulty,” “Tries hard to meet the teacher’s standards,” and more.

I had the privilege of presenting the Character Rubric to parents at a regular monthly PTA meeting and of talking to parents about it in many individual sessions. No parent ever found fault with it, argued with it, or expressed any reservation about it. It was a stunning success, from our parents’ point of view. They realized, immediately, that these were the traits their own children needed to work on.

Parents, I bet we all agree that kids need certain attitudes toward their schoolwork and that they need to develop certain traits that will serve them well at work and in life. Your work at home with your own children is a big part of developing those attitudes and traits, of course. But, at our school, we all believed that teachers needed to help nurture them in school and that teachers needed to correct students when they weren’t exhibiting them.

It is time to take a look at how teachers in your school or school district encourage your children to develop these important traits and how they let students know when they need to improve:

Ask your school board to talk about whether nurturing students’ character is an important part of the board’s vision. Is judging the results of that nurturing also part of the board’s vision? Does the board intend to look at how successful the district is in producing students with excellent character as well as excellent academic skills? This discussion should be part of an open board meeting, but board members should have the opportunity to meet with the superintendent and other staff first to find out exactly what is being done in the schools to nurture important character traits.

You could ask your school board or your principal to come up with your own Character Rubric, if your school district or school does not already have one. You might expect to see a different one for elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools (the important student traits should probably be the same, while some of the sample student behaviors might differ).

If you are having trouble coming up with a Character Rubric on your own, have your superintendent or principal let me know. We have a great one you might want to see.

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Only One-Third of Students Are Proficient: Yikes

Only One-Third of Students Are Proficient: Yikes on ParentChat with Regina: Getting Control of What Matters in Education | parentchatwithregina.orgCould the recently released New York State test results for students in grades 3 through 8 in English language arts (ELA) and math be any worse? Well, I guess they could, but the results are plenty poor enough. Where is the exasperation, New York taxpayers? Where is the alarm that your kids aren’t learning fundamental skills, New York parents? Maybe everyone was on vacation.

You might remember that it was just last spring when record numbers of New York students “opted out” of taking the tests as families protested the new Common Core Learning Standards and/or the tests created to match them and/or the promise of using student test results to evaluate teachers. We will get to the 20 percent who opted out in a minute. They have already gotten more press than the test results.

Here is some background you will need (especially you readers who are outside of New York State). Results on the new New York State tests—first given in 2013 and designed to measure the new Common Core Learning Standards, adopted in 2011—are reported according to these achievement levels with regard to the Standards:

  • Level 4—The student excels.
  • Level 3—The student is proficient.
  • Level 2—The student is partially proficient.
  • Level 1—The student is well below proficient.

The State is hoping for 3’s and 4’s, which indicate that the student is on track to score at a college-ready and career-ready achievement level when it comes time for the high school Common Core Regents Exams. Parents and other taxpayers, you should be hoping for 3’s and 4’s, too.

So, How Bad Was It in ELA?

About 31 percent of students in grades 3 through 8 scored a 3 or 4 (with a range across the grades from about 29 percent to almost 35 percent). That 31 percent figure has been virtually the same for all three years of testing with the new tests. Just 31 percent of elementary and middle school students are proficient in reading and writing skills statewide. In case you think it is New York City’s fault, it’s not. About 30 percent of New York City students scored a 3 or 4 across grades 3 through 8. Wow.

It is time for the other shoe to drop: What percent of New York State students scored a 1—meaning that they are well below proficient? The answer is almost 34 percent of students in grades 3 through 8 (with a range across the grades from about 30 percent to almost 38 percent). Again, New York City scores are just about the same.

So, here’s the summary: About a third of New York State students are proficient or better (the 3’ and 4’s), about a third are partially proficient (the 2’s), and about a third are well below proficient (the 1’s). That’s also true for New York City students. Who thinks that is okay?

Maybe Math Was Great?

About 38 percent of students in grades 3 through 8 scored a 3 or 4 (with a range across grades 3 through 7 from about 35 percent to about 43 percent—and with an oddly low 22 percent in grade 8, likely caused by the fact that the many of the best math students in eighth grade were accelerated into Algebra and took the high school Regents Examination rather than this grade 8 test). That 38 percent figure has indeed improved from the 31 percent figure we started with in 2013. Again, New York City students in grades 3 through 8 are not far behind, with 35 percent scoring a 3 or 4.

So, what percent of New York State students scored a 1—well below proficient? The answer is about 31 percent across grades 3 through 8 (with a range from about 27 percent to almost 34 percent, with an oddly high approximately 40 percent in grade 8, again likely due to the removal of the best math students who did not take this test). Almost 34 percent of New York City students in grades 3 though 8 scored a 1.

This is it in a nutshell, and it is a familiar story: Just over a third of New York State students are proficient or better (the 3’ and 4’s), just under a third are partially proficient (the 2’s), and just under a third are well below proficient (the 1’s). New York City students’ results are quite similar. Compared to the ELA results, you ask? The results are ever so slightly better in math and would likely have been a bit better if the best eighth grade math students (who were accelerated into Algebra and took the Algebra Regents Examination) had been tested with this test instead.

What About Black and Hispanic Students?

It’s not good news. This year, about 40 percent of white students scored a 3 or 4 on the ELA tests, and about 50 percent of white students scored a 3 or 4 on the math tests. The figures for black and Hispanic students were about 20 percentage points lower than white students. On the math tests, the differences were about 25 percentage points. That’s what anyone would call a huge achievement gap.

Years ago, my nonprofit organization was working in Cleveland, then under Court-ordered desegregation. The Federal District Court had told the Cleveland Public Schools that the school district would be under Court order until the reading scores of black and white students in grades 1 though 9 were equal. It seemed like a tall order then—though an essential one. Unfortunately, it seems like a tall order today in New York State some 30 years later.

Let’s Blame the New Harder Tests—Not

Various officials have remarked that the new tests designed to match the new Common Core Learning Standards are harder than the old New York State tests designed to match the old New York State Standards. There might be some truth to that.

However, the third grade test still looks about like a third grade test. It’s doesn’t look like a sixth grade test given to third graders. Read the questions that New York State released to the public for yourself. Yes, you might find some that seem too hard or confusing or unfair in some way. (I can tell you from lots of personal experience that it is really hard to write thousands of perfect test questions.) But, at the end of the day, the tests are going to seem reasonable to you. After all, no one who was writing them wanted to see thousands of children fail.

So, I don’t think we can blame the new harder tests. Try this: Forget how students did on the older and perhaps easier New York State tests and consider only how they are doing now. How do you feel about a third of students being proficient or excelling, a third being partially proficient, and a third being well below proficient? That’s the question you have to answer.

By the way, the students who opted out and did not take the tests last spring were more likely to have scored a 1 or 2 back in 2014, according to New York State Education Department data. Oh, no. If lots of those students had taken the tests, the results might have been even worse.

As we begin another school year, it is time to address any concerns you have about New York State testing, and an honest conversation about the results is a great way to start:

  • All parents: Ask your school board to talk about the New York State results in ELA and in math in grades 3 through 8 and to discuss how your school district’s results compared to the State results. This discussion should be part of an open board meeting, but board members should have the opportunity to study the results before that meeting and to get the input of district administrators and teachers before and/or during the meeting. Listen for the administrators to explain the results in a way that makes sense to you—not explain away the results as if they weren’t legitimate.
  • Elementary and middle school parents: Ask your principal and classroom teachers to discuss your school’s results with parents. Are they satisfied with the results? If not, what changes are taking place to improve the results? Tell them whether you are satisfied with the results.
  • High school parents: Ask your principal and classroom teachers to discuss the eighth grade test scores of the new ninth grade class and to discuss what they are doing to help incoming students who do not have the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in high school courses.

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“Don’t Know Much About History…”

"Don't Know Much About History..." | ParentChat with Regina | parentchatwithregina.orgEighth grade students in the U.S. “don’t know much about history.” They “don’t know much about geography,” either. When Sam Cooke sang those memorable words in 1960, he wasn’t looking at the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test results released last spring. But in 2015, his words are a grim reality. By the way, our eighth graders also don’t know much about civics, in case you were wondering.

Here’s what I don’t get: There was no national furor when the test results were released. The story was covered in some national media publications and in some education-related publications in print and online. Where was the outraged public reaction I would have expected or, rather, hoped for? Where were you, parents?

Here is some background. NAEP (pronounced nape) tests a nationwide sample of U.S. students to find out what they have learned in various school subjects. Some school subjects have been tested since 1969, some subjects were added later, and more subjects are still being added. Some exams are given more often than others—every two years, for example, instead of every four years. Exams have traditionally been given in grades 4, 8, and 12. Known as “the Nation’s Report Card,” the NAEP exams are administered, according to federal law, by the National Center for Education Statistics in the U.S. Department of Education. Originally a project of the highly respected Education Commission of the States, the NAEP exams have always had a good reputation.

NAEP results are reported by these achievement levels (the quotations are from NAEP’s own glossary):

  • Advanced—the highest level, indicating “superior performance” in the subject at that grade level
  • Proficient—the middle level, indicating “solid academic performance” and “competency over challenging subject matter” in the subject at that grade level
  • Basic—the lowest level, indicating “partial mastery” of the knowledge and skills in the subject at that grade level
  • Below Basic—really a lack-of-achievement level, indicating scores so low that students could not even get onto the first rung of NAEP’s three-rung achievement ladder

In 2014, NAEP tested about 29,000 eighth grade students in a representative sample of public and private schools nationwide. Each student took only one of the social studies exams: U.S. history, geography (U.S. and world geography), or civics. Here are the results, shown as the percent of students scoring at each level:

U.S. History

  • Advanced—1 %
  • Proficient—17 %
  • Basic—53 %
  • Below Basic—29 %

Geography

  • Advanced—3 %
  • Proficient—24 %
  • Basic—48 %
  • Below Basic—25 %

Civics

  • Advanced—2 %
  • Proficient—22 %
  • Basic—51 %
  • Below Basic—26 %

You can add up and report these results any way you want to, trying to put a positive spin on them, but the bottom line is this: About 50 percent of eighth graders have only partial mastery of social studies subject matter, and about 25 percent of eighth graders don’t even have that. Just a tiny fraction of eighth graders really knocked the ball out of the park.

You can look at these results broken down by students’ racial/ethnic background, and you can look at these results compared to the results from tests given in earlier years. But there is really not much good news there, either. The overall results are so poor, that breaking them down to look for some small piece of good news misses the point.

Our first inclination when test results are poor is often to blame the test. I don’t believe you should do that here. I am inclined to believe that the test results are one reasonable portrait of what our kids know—or, in this case, don’t know.

Some people have said that U.S. history and geography and civics NAEP scores are not what they should be because of the recent focus on the Common Core State Standards in mathematics and English language arts and because of the recent enthusiastic support for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) initiatives from a host of experts, teachers, professors, business leaders, and politicians. Of course, the NAEP scores on these exams weren’t any better in 2010, the last time the three exams were given. Oh, and the geography scores haven’t improved at all since that exam was first given in 1994.

So, is social studies the least valued of the core academic subjects? Should it be? Have you had this discussion in your local schools, parents? Has your school board had this discussion with your local administrators? If you all have decided that U.S. history and geography and civics are not that important for students to learn, then you would think about these NAEP scores quite differently. Maybe you all made that decision, and I just missed it.

With the beginning of a new school year, it is a particularly good time to have these discussions about what matters—because nothing matters more than what your kids are learning in their classrooms:

  • All parents: Ask your school board to talk about the NAEP results in U.S. history, geography, and civics and to discuss what they should mean for your school district. (This discussion should be part of an open board meeting, but board members should have the opportunity to study the results before that meeting and to get the input of district administrators and teachers before and/or during the meeting.)
  • Elementary school parents: Ask your principal and classroom teachers what they are doing to give students the foundation knowledge and skills they need to succeed in middle school social studies classes.
  • Middle school parents: Ask your principal and social studies teachers what they think about the NAEP results and whether social studies teaching and learning in your school need to improve.
  • High school parents: Ask your principal and social studies teachers what they are doing to help students learn the knowledge and skills they are already missing and what they will do to try to hit the standards being tested by the twelfth grade exams—that is, if you think they matter.

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