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)

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

I’ve been writing about obvious quality control problems with the award of high school diplomas in Kentucky for several years. Now, I am updating that work with results from the 2016 Unbridled Learning reports, and the situation remains very serious.

Quite simply, there continues to be extensive evidence that Kentucky schools are handing out a lot of diplomas to students who cannot meet any of the official College and/or Career Ready (CCR) criteria and who probably don’t meet the state’s regulatory requirement that graduates are to be competent in math through Algebra II.

Even worse, the quality control in diploma awards varies widely by school district in Kentucky. For example, in the worst example from the new, 2016 CCR-based analysis, one school district officially reported an “on time” high school graduation rate of 91.7 percent although little more than one in four of that district’s 2016 graduates could pass muster under at least one of the official CCR criteria. The rest apparently got a somewhat hollow diploma that didn’t meet the state’s promise that our graduates will be ready for college and/or a career.

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More evidence Kentucky’s larger than average high school graduation rates might not be a good thing

I’ve recently been writing about a highly problematic report from Johns Hopkins University titled “For All Kids, How Kentucky is Closing the High School Graduation Gap for Low-Income Students.” The Hopkins report has many problems, but the biggest issue is fundamental. The report assumes that diplomas awarded in different states require the same level of academic achievement. That is an unfortunate stretch. So, in this blog, I examine some limited academic evidence from the ACT for states that can be reasonably compared to each other. The results further undermine the Hopkins report’s major assumption.

Click the “Read more” link to see the full story.

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