An educator bemoans the deception in high school graduation rates

Writing in Education Week, Bernard Gassaway, a former New York City public schools teacher, principal, and superintendent adds his voice of discontent about the growing deception in high school graduation rates across the nation.

Too many Kentucky’s school systems are certainly playing this game by passing out thousands of “Hollow Diplomas” each year, which discrepancies between high school graduation rates and college and career ready rates and discrepancies between high school graduation rates and Algebra II End-of-Course Exam performance (Algebra II is a stipulated high school graduation requirement in Kentucky) make readily apparent.

More from Kentucky’s Office of Education Accountability regarding school attendance

The Kentucky Legislature’s Office of Education Accountability (OEA) presented an interesting report to the Education Assessment and Accountability Review Subcommittee on August 15, 2017 with some really attention getting information.

I already discussed one stunning OEA finding that a majority of Kentucky’s public school students meet the legal definition of being truants.

Today, I briefly touch on results from an OEA survey of the state’s school superintendents on the issue of changing the state’s mandatory minimum dropout age to 18. This change in the minimum dropout age was set in motion in 2013 by Senate Bill 97. The bill was heavily pushed by former Kentucky First Lady Jane Beshear and was heralded as a way to improve graduation rates even though research at the time indicated most states that had raised their dropout age were not reaping much in benefits.

The OEA says by January 2015 all districts had adopted an Age 18 minimum dropout requirement.

So, OEA asked some questions in its superintendent survey about what has happened since SB-97 came along, and, not surprisingly, there were unintended consequences.

OEA reports that:

“The majority (52 percent) of survey respondents indicated that SB 97 (2013) had increased the number of truant students and nearly two-thirds (65 percent) said it increased the number of students entering home school.”

OEA provided some numbers to back this up, as well, as Table 1 below shows.

Table 1

Summary of Superintendent Responses About Age 18 Bill (SB-97, 2013)

Notice in the upper left corner of Table 1 that 46.8 percent of the superintendents in the OEA’s survey said they saw a decrease in their dropouts after this legislation became effective, but there is much more to this story.

Most surprising, despite the legislation’s intent, the bottom line in Table 1 shows a solid majority of the superintendents said that either there was no improvement in the high school graduation rate (47.8 percent) or the rate actually declined (add another 11.5 percent).

Furthermore, over half of the superintendents, 51.6 percent, said they also saw a rise in their truancy rates.

Also significant, well over half of the superintendents, 65.4 percent, said they saw an increase in students leaving the public school system to supposedly home school. Legislators at the EAARS meeting latched onto that because there are concerns that some students might be claiming to go to home school but really are just using this as a dodge to get around the minimum age of 18 to dropout. Some other data in the OEA’s presentation bears on this issue.

Table 2 primarily comes from Slide 37 in the OEA’s presentation, but I added some additional items in the yellow-shaded area at the bottom of the table.

Table 2

Students Transferred to Homeschool or Dropped Out

As you can see, while dropouts decreased between 2012 and 2016, there has been a notable rise in the number of high school students moving to homeschool compared to the transfers to homeschool for students in elementary and middle school grades. That is already cause for concern, but I looked at something additional the OEA didn’t consider.

Since all districts didn’t adopt the Age 18 rule until 2015, I added a set of calculations for the one-year change from 2015 to 2016. Here the difference in high school versus lower grades transition to homeschool is much more pronounced. In fact, the change in the percentage of transfers in high schools is more than three times the change for elementary and middle school grades, 18.6 percent versus only 5.8 percent.

Also quite notable, the increase in high school transfers to homeschool between 2015 and 2016 of 531 students is much larger than the decrease in the number of dropouts of only 64 students between those years. If the supposed transfers to home school are really just a dodge to work around the Age 18 dropout restriction, then the real dropout situation might be much worse than the official numbers indicate.

During the meeting the OEA team mentioned that Kentucky’s rules for home schooling are fairly loose, and it isn’t really possible to investigate the veracity of the supposed home school transfers due to restrictions found in the Kentucky constitution that severely limit the legislature’s ability to pass laws regarding home schools.

So, the real impact of Kentucky’s Age 18 to drop out law is not as clear as you might suspect. A lot fewer kids might really be getting an education than the drop out data would suggest.

Kentucky’s education commissioner starting to sound like us about high school graduation statistics

The Bluegrass Institute has been raising strong, evidence-based concerns about the quality of Kentucky’s standard high school diploma for well over half a decade.

Our concerns about possible inflation in Kentucky’s high school graduation rates stretch back at least to 2010 when we compared the state’s claimed graduation rates to much lower rates being reported by Education Week.

By August 2012 we were discussing how the state was passing out regular but “Hollow Diplomas” to students with learning disabilities who could not read.

By January 2015 our concerns intensified. By this time we were using much more compelling data, comparing Kentucky’s official high school graduation rates to other official state data that showed only a moderate proportion of those graduates were able to meet even one of the state’s various ways to determine readiness for either college or for a career. Also in 2015 we also began to use another method to show that students were getting diplomas although their academic preparation didn’t seem to meet official requirements. This time, we compared the proficiency rates on the state’s Algebra II End-of-Course Exams to the graduation rates. Kentucky Regulation 704 KAR 3:305 stipulates that competency in Algebra II is a high school graduation requirement, so you would expect reasonable agreement between graduation rates and the Algebra II EOC Exam proficiency rates. But, we didn’t find that.

We also updated our examination of graduation rates versus the state’s official college and/or career ready rates in 2015, finding just as much cause for concern as we had in earlier studies. We found disparities in the amount of social promotion to diplomas based on racial differences, as well. For example, this topic was covered on pages 13 to 18 in our report, “Blacks Continue Falling Through Gaps in Louisville’s Schools, The 2016 Update.”

What’s new today is that Kentucky Commissioner of Education Stephen Pruitt is starting to raise similar concerns about what really stands behind the current award of high school diplomas in the Bluegrass State. Speaking to the Kentucky Legislature’s Interim Joint Committee on Education today, Pruitt said:

“There are a lot of things about our graduation requirements that are good, but one could very easily question do we actually know if every kid is actually meeting all those requirements, and are they the right requirements?”

Pruitt promised action to come concerning the issue of diploma quality, and we are glad he is getting on board with this program.

Hear some of the commissioner’s comments in this short recording.

Beware Beshear’s claims about Kentucky’s high school graduation rates!

Former Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear delivered a rather weak response to President Donald Trump’s recent — and impressive — address to the joint meeting of the Congress.

In his remarks, Beshear touted Kentucky’s rapid growth in high school graduation rates. It sounded impressive, but the nation deserves to hear the rest of this misleading story.

At the end of the 2015-16 school year, the Kentucky School Report Cards database reported a high school graduation rate of 88.6 percent based on the new Four-Year Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate (ACGR) formula now required for federal reporting. That graduation rate is indeed well above the national average and has increased slightly from the 86.1 percent ACGR posted by Kentucky at the end of the 2012-13 school year (which is the first year Kentucky used this new formula, making comparisons to earlier years’ graduation rates inappropriate).

Kentucky’s ACGR numbers look impressive, but the real question is whether or not Kentucky’s recent high school graduates are getting the education those diplomas are supposed to represent. Unfortunately, there is very strong evidence that Kentucky is just handing out lots of rather hollow diplomas.

Hollow Diplomas Exhibit A starts with a review of Kentucky’s education regulations.

Kentucky regulation 704 KAR 3:305, “Minimum requirements for high school graduation” stipulates that Kentucky’s high school graduates will be competent in mathematics through Algebra II.

However, the Kentucky School Report Card database shows the proficiency rate on the state’s Algebra II End-of-Course Exam was only 38.2 percent in the 2014-15 school term (most Kentucky students take Algebra II in the 11th grade)! And, Algebra II proficiency rates haven’t changed much since Algebra II End-of-Course testing began in 2011-12 when the rate was actually a bit higher at 40.0 percent.

Clearly, it takes some “very interesting” math to reconcile a 38.2 Algebra II proficiency rate with a high school graduation rate of 88.6 percent when competency in that math subject is a stipulated requirement to get those diplomas.

But, there is more, as Hollow Diplomas Exhibit B shows.

Kentucky’s stated goal for its public education system is to make students ready for college and/or a career (CCR). The state has actually developed a number of metrics based on a variety of different tests and other things like earning a recognized industry certificate, e.g. a welder’s certificate, as evidence of such readiness. The current CCR criteria have been around since the 2011-12 school term.

However, in 2015-16 the Kentucky School Report Cards show only 68.5 percent of those students who received a Kentucky high school diploma were able to meet muster under any of the various ways available to establish readiness for either college or a career. The rest of the 2015-16 graduates, nearly one-third of the total, were not ready for either college or a career and clearly got a rather hollow diploma.

In fact, if you combine the data for graduation rates and CCR rates for 2015-16 together, it looks like only around 61 percent of Kentucky’s entering ninth graders who became the Class of 2016 actually graduated from high school with a meaningful education. That “Effective Graduation Rate” of only 61 percent isn’t something anyone would cheer.

So, beware Beshear’s Kentucky high school graduation claims. More kids are probably getting paper in Kentucky (though even that number has not been rigorously audited to my knowledge). But, this clearly is happening only because regulatory requirements and stated education goals are being ignored in a rush to socially promote students to a piece of paper regardless of merit.

For more on this important topic:

Kentucky’s high school diploma quality control problems continue in 2016 – Part 1

Kentucky’s high school diploma quality control problems continue in 2016 – Part 2

Another reason why Kentucky needs a strong charter school bill

A new report from ProPublica provides dramatic evidence about a real threat to student success when only local school districts are allowed to authorize charter schools.

ProPublica’s article points out that in some areas of the country local districts are authorizing charter schools so the district can hide poor student performance and make its regular schools look better. The district authorizers are not holding the charters accountable. They are manipulating the process to make their regular schools look better.

ProPublica’s article includes a map that provides an additional warning for Kentucky. The map identifies school districts with more problematic alternative schools.

ProPublica Dropout Factory Warning National Map

Here is an enhanced blowup of the Kentucky section of the map.

ProPublica Dropout Factory Warning KY Blowup Map Enhanced

Notice that school district enrollment is identified by the size of the circle. The degree to which each district’s alternate schools appear problematic is identified by the shade of pink inside the circle, with darker shading indicating more issues of concern.

Unlike the vast majority of states, especially those east of the Mississippi River, Kentucky is covered border to border in these pink “measles.” Furthermore, while you need to look closely since most Kentucky districts are small, many of the state’s circles are in darker shades of pink, indicating ProPublica has a whole lot of concerns about many alternative schools here.

Keep in mind that Kentucky currently has no charter schools, so all of the high concern alternative programs in the Bluegrass State are being run directly by the school districts. This shows that such abuses are not unique to charter school states or charter schools, either. These problems are a feature of ineffective, if not outright inappropriate, motivations on the part of local public school districts.

ProPublica says this problem manifests itself in places like Florida’s Sunshine High School in the Orlando area. I confirmed with the Florida Department of Education that Sunshine High is indeed a district authorized charter school. In fact, virtually all of Florida’s charters are district authorized. So, while Florida has plenty of “measles” on the ProPublica map, this is actually a traditional school district problem because the authorizer of a charter school is supposed to be the first line of accountability for a charter school. Per ProPublica, that isn’t happening with district authorized charters in Florida.

By the way, if a Kentucky district brought in a separate ‘hidden dropouts’ charter school, that charter school’s performance would be separately reported, making statistics for the district’s regular schools look better, just like is happening in Florida. We don’t want that temptation here.

So, here are some messages for Kentucky legislators.


  • Our pending charter school legislation needs to insure districts can’t engage in such abuses with any charters established here.

  • It clearly would be much better for Kentucky to allow independent charter school authorizers who face no temptations to hide bad performance for school districts.

If Kentucky only allows local school districts to authorize charter schools, those ProPublica map measles – already far too numerous – are likely to expand even more in the Bluegrass State.

And, Kentucky’s kids will pay the price.

(Blog updated with minor wording changes and the blow up map, 21 Feb 17 at 7:38 pm)

High school diploma quality – a serious problem on both sides of the Ohio River

A Kentucky Enquirer news article, “Grad requirements: Class of 2018 is in trouble,” talks about the disconnect between what public schools think is an adequate education to earn a high school diploma and what state leaders think should really be required. It appears Ohio’s educators are even upset about requiring the equivalent of just a 10th grade education to earn a diploma, wanting even lower standards to apply.

Well, high school diploma quality is a serious problem on both sides of the Ohio River.

Kentucky currently posts well above national average high school graduation rates – in 2016 the on-time, “Four-Year Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate” was 88.6 percent – but other data indicate a startling number of those diplomas do not represent real readiness for what comes next in those graduates’ lives.

For example, Kentucky has well-defined criteria for determining what is considered readiness for either college or a career, offering students several methods to show such readiness. But, in 2016 only 68.5 percent of the state’s high school graduates were able to meet muster under at least one of those various criteria.

Put Kentucky’s 2016 graduation rate and readiness rate information together, and only 60.7 percent of the entering ninth grade students who should have graduated in 2016 actually did graduate with the skills needed to be ready for life. That essentially is an “effective” high school graduation rate of only 60.7 percent, far lower than the official 88.6 percent rate.

It gets worse.

Kentucky regulations stipulate that the state’s high school graduates are to be competent in math through Algebra II. Most Kentucky students take Algebra II in the 11th grade, but the proficiency rate on Kentucky’s Algebra II End-of-Course Exam in the 2014-15 school year was only 38.2 percent! That doesn’t line up well with those 11th graders’ graduation rate one year later of 88.6 percent.

Very simply, it looks like massive numbers of Kentucky’s 2016 graduates didn’t really meet regulatory requirements for graduation.

Considering this mass of evidence, it seems pretty obvious that many Kentucky students are getting a piece of paper without mastering required material and that those graduates are not ready for life, a publicly stated goal for education in Kentucky.

Regardless of whether we talk about Kentucky or Ohio, granting large numbers of students that coveted high school diploma doesn’t matter so much if they still are leaving school with inadequate educations. And, the rather compelling and extensive evidence from Kentucky shows that this problematic situation is exactly what is happening south of the Ohio River.

[Read more…]

Alabama’s educators lied about high school graduation rates

Education Week reports that “Alabama Officials Admit to Lying About Graduation Rate.”

In an apology announcement the Alabama Department of Education says:

“The Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) is involved in a review of recent graduation rates by the Office of Inspector General, which resides within the United States Department of Education (USDE). The ALSDE has determined, after completing an initial audit, that the graduation rate was misstated to the people of Alabama – policymakers, educators, parents, students, all citizens – and to the USDE.”

One inflationary factor Alabama admits is:

“Low Oversight of Local School Systems’ Awarding of Credits – The ALSDE did not increase oversight as needed of local school systems’ awarding of earned class credits. In some cases, local school systems misstated student records and awarded class credit, resulting in diplomas that were not honestly earned.”

Well, maybe US Ed will be coming to Kentucky, too.

As we have pointed out in several blogs, the Bluegrass State also claims very large high school graduation rates, but many students might not really meet the stated requirements.

In particular, while Kentucky regulations stipulate that students must be proficient in math through Algebra II to graduate, a number of school districts recently reported graduation rates well above 90 percent but only have single-digit proficiency rates on the state’s Algebra II End-of-Course (EOC) Exam.

top-and-bottom-10-grad-rate-vs-algebra-ii-prof-rate-table

In fact, as shown at the bottom of the table above, even in the district with the least disparity, there still seems to be a notable gap between the graduation rate and the Algebra II EOC Exam proficiency rate.

See our latest series on high school graduation rate quality control problems for more.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

So, don’t be surprised if US Ed comes calling on Kentucky after they finish up in Alabama and in California, which also seems to have some grad rate credibility issues.

High school graduation rates coming under scrutiny

Education Week reports that the US Department of Education has launched an investigation of high school graduation rate claims in both Alabama and California.

At issue are large high school graduation rates that have grown dramatically over time and don’t seem to match other data like the proportion of students who are considered college ready on the ACT.

EdWeek’s article seems to indicate that other states might be under examination, as well. Could Kentucky be one of those?

As our regular readers know, we have been raising serious questions about the obvious lack of quality control over diploma awards in the Bluegrass State’s school districts compared to college and career ready rates and proficiency rates on the state’s Algebra II End-of-Course test. The former comparison is relevant since the state has declared readiness as an education goal for Kentucky. The second comparison is also important because current Kentucky regulations stipulate that graduates will be competent in math through Algebra II.

See our latest series on high school graduation rate quality control problems for more.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Prichard Committee now using our Effective High School Graduation Rate

In their new report, “2016 Statewide Results: An Excellence with Equity Report,” the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence now recognizes the value of a high school performance metric we introduced over a year ago.

The Bluegrass Institute’s “Effective High School Graduation Rate,” has real value for helping to determine the performance of education systems in Kentucky. It shows the proportion of entering ninth grade students who graduate four years later with the skills needed to qualify as either college or career ready using Kentucky’s official methods for determining such readiness.

As we showed in our February 2016 report about “Blacks Continue Falling Through Gaps in Louisville’s Schools, The 2016 Update,” the Effective High School Graduation Rate is useful to identify which schools (and school districts) excessively promote students to a high school diploma without providing the education those diplomas need to represent if students are to be ready for life.

Prichard uses this metric extensively in their new report although they call it the “Ready Graduate” indicator. Prichard doesn’t go into the more detailed explanation we provide about why the formula works (or that the Bluegrass Institute has been using this statistic for some time).

But, whether called the Effective High School Graduation Rate or the Ready Graduate indicator, it is the same statistic and is actually calculated in the same way (though Prichard leaves out a few math details in their description about dividing the product of the four-year graduation rate and the percent college and/or career ready by 100 to actually develop the percentage-like numbers they show).

In any event, the really important message here is that Prichard now joins the Bluegrass Institute in pointing to this new measure of the proportion of ninth graders who graduate ready for life as an important indicator. Folks putting the new assessment and accountability system together for Kentucky need to take note, because only paying attention to the four-year graduation rate is creating pressure for schools to socially promote students to diplomas who really are not ready. That makes some schools look good when they really are not so hot.

And, making schools look good when they obviously are not so hot has been a major failing of Unbridled Learning. That is something I am sure neither the Bluegrass Institute nor Prichard want repeated in the state’s new assessment and accountability program.

New report adds more evidence that Kentucky’s poor students get treated differently

On October 18, 2016 the Kentucky Office of Education Accountability (OEA) presented an important report about achievement gaps in Kentucky’s schools. Normally, it takes the Kentucky Legislative Research Commission many months after a report is approved before it appears in final, edited version in their web site, and the next legislative session will likely be over before that posting occurs.

However, “Overview of Achievement Gaps in Kentucky Schools” contains a lot of valuable information, information that could be important for policy decisions that will come up in the next legislative session.

So, I obtained a copy of the approved draft of the report and posted it online so that everyone can have access before the legislature goes into session.

Many important issues are discussed in this report, but one stood out for me right away. Some new data from the OEA’s research adds to other research I have been conducting regarding the large amount of social promotion to high school diplomas in Kentucky.

The OEA’s report provides still more evidence that Kentucky’s schools are pushing more poor kids through the program with less educational accomplishment than their more affluent classmates are getting.

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