The new Kentucky School Report Card for the 2016-17 school term has been issued, and we’ve already made some initial observations about test scores. Now it’s time to examine one of the rather few supposedly bright areas in the data – the high school graduation rates in Kentucky.
The officially released data on high school graduation rates are based on a federally required calculation called the “Four-Year Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate.” The calculation supposedly tells us the proportion of first time entering ninth grade students who graduate on time after a standard four years in high school. This formula is supposed to be more accurate than any other alternative.
However, the cohort rate formula tells us nothing about whether students receiving diplomas actually got a minimally acceptable education. Worse, there is evidence that the public school systems across the nation and in Kentucky are passing out more educationally thin diplomas than they should. Let’s look at the new evidence for Kentucky.
Table 1 first shows the officially reported College and/or Career Ready Rates (CCR) for Kentucky’s high school graduates over time. This rate shows the proportion of new high school graduates who were able to meet at least one of the readiness requirements formally established in Kentucky for either college readiness or career readiness. The CCR criteria include such things as obtaining sufficiently high scores on college readiness tests such as the ACT or scoring adequately on a career oriented test such as the Armed Forces Vocational Aptitude Battery plus completing a minimum number of courses in skilled trades areas.
Table 1 next shows the officially reported 4-Year Averaged Cohort Graduation Rates (ACGR) for Kentucky from 2012-13 through 2016-17.
The table also shows a calculation I developed for the Bluegrass Institute called the “Effective High School Graduation Rate.” The Effective High School Graduation Rate shows the percentage of entering ninth graders who graduate on time after four years in high school with the skills required to meet at least one of Kentucky’s official measures for college and/or career readiness. In other words, this rate only includes kids who get an education that effectively prepares them for what will come next after high school. By the way, the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence also adopted the formula for our Effective High School Graduation Rate about a year after we created it, calling this a “Ready Graduates” statistic.
As you can see in the far right hand column of Table 1, the difference between the official high school graduation rate and the effective rate is very large in Kentucky.
For example, in 2016-17 we are told the official high school graduation rate is 89.8 percent. But, the Effective High School Graduation Rate is far lower – only an astonishingly disappointing 58.5 percent. It appears that another 31.3 percent of the entering ninth grade class got a piece of paper, but they could not meet true graduation readiness requirements.
Still worse, the improving discrepancy between the official and effective rates reversed direction in 2017 for the first time even though the official ACGR rate continued to climb. That points to the likelihood that the increase is mostly, or even exclusively, due to schools simply awarding more watered down diplomas to students who don’t meet state standards.
There is yet another way to look at this problem. Kentucky regulation 704 KAR 3:305, Minimum requirements for high school graduation, requires students to be competent in math through Algebra II to graduate.
Now, the Kentucky state testing program includes an Algebra II End-of-Course Exam, which the Kentucky Department of Education says is taken by most students in the 11th grade. Thus, you would expect a fairly close agreement between the Algebra II End-of-Course Exam’s proficiency rate and the graduation rate in the following school year.
Well, guess again.
Table 2 shows the very large discrepancies between Algebra II testing and those getting a high school diploma.
As you can see, the discrepancies here are considerably larger than those found in Table 1 for the comparison of CCR to graduation rates. Because not every student takes Algebra II as an 11th grader, I don’t expect a perfect match in Table 2, but the discrepancies between Algebra II proficiency and the graduation rate are simply far too large to excuse away. Here again we see important evidence that supposed requirements for high school graduates are simply being ignored in many Kentucky school districts. That totally undermines the credibility of Kentucky’s high school diploma (something employers tell us they well understand already). This also makes the small improvement in the high school graduation rate uncompelling evidence of real education system improvement.
By the way, Kentucky Commissioner of Education Stephen Pruitt is aware of this diploma quality control problem and is promising to address it soon.
One more point – do not use the Algebra II numbers shown in Table 2 by themselves to evaluate Kentucky’s trend in this subject. Recall again those numbers are for a year earlier than the listed graduation year. For graduation year 2016-17, the Algebra II End-of-Course proficiency rate was only 38.1 percent, notably lower than the 42.3 percent figure you find at the bottom of Table 2, which is actually the Algebra II proficiency rate for 2015-16. So, this is another area where the 2017 scores release is a disappointment.
Sources for Data in Table 1:
2012-13 to 2014-15 Data Sources: 2014-15 Kentucky School Report Card, State, DELIVERY_TARGETS, CCR tab and DELIVERY_TARGETS, GRADUATION_RATE tab
2015 to 2017 Data Source: 2016-17 Kentucky School Report Card, State, DELIVERY_TARGETS, CCR tab and DELIVERY_TARGETS, GRADUATION_RATE tab
Sources for Data in Table 2:
2013-14 and 2014-15 (actually for years 2011-12 and 2012-13) from each year’s Excel spreadsheet for ASSESSMENT, K-PREP END-OF-COURSE area from Kentucky School Report Cards.
2014-15 to 2016-17 Algebra II End-of-Course Proficiency Rates (actually for years 2013-14 to 2015-16) from each year’s Kentucky School Report Card ASSESSMENT, STATE_REQUIRED_TESTS, K-PREP_END_OF_COURSE tab
The source of graduation rates is the same as listed for Table 1.
Update October 29 2017 makes minor grammatical corrections