More on the quality control problems with Kentucky’s high school diplomas – Part 2

Yesterday, we took a look at how the latest high school graduation rates in Kentucky’s school districts match up, or don’t match up, to proficiency rates on the state’s Algebra II End-of-Course Exam. We learned that there are notable discrepancies for most school districts when common sense would indicate there should be fairly close agreement in those statistics and that this is problematic because content covered in Algebra II is required for graduation in Kentucky.

Today, in the spirit of examining a problem in more than one way, we compare Kentucky’s on-time high school graduation rates (formally, the Four-Year Adjusted Cohort High School Graduation Rate, or ACGR) to the percentages of students who are leaving the state’s high schools able to meet at least one of the state’s official criteria for college and/or career readiness (CCR). Once again, we are going to show you some very problematic evidence that high school diplomas need some serious quality control in Kentucky.

The table below shows comparisons between the percentages of diplomas being handed out and the percentages of students who really get an effective education – at least using the state’s official college and/or career ready criteria – in several Kentucky school districts.

Effective Grad Rate Comparison

As we did with the Algebra II evidence yesterday, this table shows only those school systems at the top and bottom of the performance range. Those districts with the worst performance are at the top of the table, above the red line. The best performers are at the bottom of the listing.

Let’s discuss this table in more detail.

The first column shows each district’s officially reported 4-Year ACGR for 2015 graduates.

The next column shows the officially reported CCR rate for the district at the end of the same school term (2014-15). This is the percentage of those graduates who were able to meet at least one of the readiness criteria.

As a side note, there is evidence from the Kentucky Office of Education Accountability that these official CCR rates are too optimistic, but that just makes our case even stronger.

For example, the top listed district, Covington Independent, posted an on-time graduation rate of 81.9 percent in 2015. That means that out of every 100 entering ninth graders in 2011-12, 81.9 students graduated on time. Now, of those 81.9 students, just 30.2 percent, or about 24.7 students, actually graduated after four years of school with an effective education – namely, a good enough education to meet at least one readiness criterion. So, out of the original 100 ninth graders, 24.7 got an effective education. This leads us to say the Effective High School Graduation Rate for Covington in 2015 was only 24.7 percent. In other words, just 24.7 percent of the entering cohort of ninth graders who should have graduated on time in 2015 actually got a diploma and an effective education, too. The rest just got socially promoted to Hollow Diplomas.

Continuing across our table, the difference between Covington’s official AFGR and its Effective High School Graduation Rate is 52.7 percentage points.

Note: Recall again our earlier comment that OEA research indicates the actual CCR rates are too high. That makes it likely that Covington’s true Effective High School Graduation Rate would be even lower if more accurate criteria were available. However, our case for concern obviously is well-established even by applying just the official data.

We ranked all the districts on the numbers in the difference column, and Covington came out ranking number one with the worst gap of all. However, Covington is far from alone.

Take a look at the bottom of the table. We don’t move very far up from the bottom of the list (where we find the best performance for our CCR analysis) before we encounter a double-digit difference between the official graduation rate for districts and the Effective High School Graduation Rate. This indicates that if readiness really is supposed to be the goal behind high school graduation, then almost all districts are handing out an excessive number of Hollow Diplomas that don’t indicate such readiness at all.

Taken together with our earlier Algebra II analysis, it is clear that Kentucky has some very serious quality control problems with what it really takes to get a high school diploma in the Bluegrass State.

Among other things, this makes recent claims from Johns Hopkins University that Kentucky leads the nation for graduation rates for low-income students highly debatable. In fact, what Hopkins’ report’s data really might show is that Kentucky is a national leader for handing out Hollow Diplomas. That is a reasonable alternate interpretation of the data that apparently never crossed the minds of the Hopkins research team.

One last note: the Bluegrass Institute is far from alone with our concerns in this area. At the Kentucky Board of Education’s retreat meeting on August 3, 2016, some of these problems were pointed out by Kentucky Department of Education Associate Commissioner Rhonda Simms and board member Gary Houchens. A bit later in the meeting, board chair Roger Marcum, said:

“I’m concerned with what Gary raised earlier and that is the consistency with our graduation rate and the CCR, and even more than that, about students receiving a diploma and whether or not there is any value.”

The room acoustics were not great, but a recording of the meeting is now available. You can hear what Marcum said beginning at 2 hours, 13 minutes and 27 seconds into the recording.

Marcum is right to be concerned, and all Kentuckians should share those concerns with him. Handing out Hollow Diplomas does no one much good except for school people who want to hide low performance. For parents, business and industry, and most importantly the students, a Hollow Diploma arguably does more harm than good. Having a piece of paper no one trusts is one problem. But, in this economy lacking the education that paper is supposed to represent is deadly.

(Updated September 25, 2016 to add this grad-rate-to-eff-grad-rate-standards-gap-districts-2014-15-clean-final)