More on the quality control problems with Kentucky’s high school diplomas – Part 3

If it did nothing else, a recently released, rather disappointing report about For All Kids, How Kentucky is Closing the High School Graduation Gap for Low-Income Students did focus attention on how Kentucky’s low-income students are faring. So, for Part 3 of our blogs about the problems with Kentucky’s high school diplomas, let’s take a look at an Algebra II versus graduation rate analysis for Kentucky’s low-income kids.

Because I have to algebraically calculate the performance for the non-low-income students, I restricted my analysis to statewide data only. Especially for the Algebra II case, doing a district by district analysis, while possible, would be rather time-consuming.

This table shows the published Kentucky-wide results for all students for the graduation rate in 2015 and for the proficiency rate one year earlier on Algebra II End-of-Course Exam for 2013-14. I use this particular comparison across years because most students in Kentucky reportedly take Algebra II in the 11th grade.

Low-Income Algebra II Statewide

The table also shows the officially reported graduation rate and Algebra II proficiency rate information for the same years for the students eligible for the federal free and reduced cost school lunch program. A lot of digging in the Hopkins report finally revealed lunch eligibility is what they are really talking about when they discuss “low-income” students.

Finally, the bottom line in the table shows the numbers I calculated from the all student and lunch only student data. Unless my algebra is getting rusty, these numbers should closely approximate the true data even though the Kentucky Department of Education currently does not report non-lunch eligible data (Note: there have been Kentucky Board of Education discussions about adding this, and I hope that happens in the future).

So, what does the table show?

For one thing – and no surprise – the graduation rate for non-lunch-eligible students, if it were reported, would be 90.9 percent, but that is only 6.1 percentage points higher than the official rate for lunch-eligible students of 84.8 percent. So, is Hopkins right to cheer Kentucky?

Well, the Algebra II performance differences for lunch and non-lunch students are quite dramatic. Only 27.4 percent of the lunch-eligible students scored proficient or higher in 2013-14 on Algebra II while I calculate that the non-lunch students scored almost twice as well with 49.8 percent reaching Algebra II proficiency on the end-of-course exam. That’s a percentage spread of 22.4 points.

As the last column shows, the gap between graduation rates and Algebra II proficiency rates is much worse for the lunch-eligible students.

The table above shows the non-lunch students do MUCH better on Algebra II, which is supposed to be a high school graduation requirement in Kentucky. But, this notable academic disparity isn’t reflected in the rather small difference in the high school graduation rates.

An obvious conclusion here is that – on a proportionate basis – a lot more of the lunch-eligible students are being socially promoted to diplomas compared to what is happening with the non-lunch students.

This throws the assertions in the Hopkins report into further disarray. Hopkins lauds the fact that Kentucky is graduating a higher proportion of low-income students than any other state. However, the reality is that Kentucky may indeed be handing out more paper to such students, but that is only because Kentucky isn’t maintaining consistent standards for its diploma awards, and more “Hollow Diplomas” are being awarded to the lunch-eligible students. That is hardly something to be praised, but it is a deeper interpretation of the data that apparently escaped the Hopkins research team.

Next time we will look at how the low-income students’ grad rates look in comparison to their college and/or career ready performance. Knowing how sharp many of our readers are, I think you already can guess the answer.

(Table and text updated on August 12, 2016 for small change in recent KDE files for the lunch eligible student graduation rate. Former rate published was 84.6 percent and it is now updated to 84.8 percent. Other figures are also adjusted as necessary)