News release: The uneven quality of Kentucky’s high school diplomas

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(LEXINGTON, Ky.) – Even as some cheer about a recent Johns Hopkins University report that claims Kentucky leads the nation for low-income students’ high school graduation rates, new research from the Bluegrass Institute raises very serious questions about the quality control behind those impressive looking numbers.

In fact, it looks like thousands of the Bluegrass State’s 2015 high school graduates couldn’t qualify as either college or career ready, a publicly stated education goal. Furthermore, many didn’t successfully perform on Algebra II testing even though regulations list this course as a high school graduation requirement. Worse yet, quality control in diploma awards apparently varies widely across Kentucky’s school districts.

The institute’s new research examines Kentucky’s high school diploma credibility on a district-by-district basis using two different approaches.

State regulations specify that graduates must demonstrate competency in the material covered by Algebra II. So, in its first analysis the institute compared each Kentucky public school district’s official on-time high school graduation rate for 2015 to the Algebra II End-of-Course Exam (EOC) proficiency rate posted one year earlier in the district. This is a reasonable comparison because the Kentucky Department of Education advises that most students take this course as 11th graders.

The findings from the Algebra II analysis are shocking.

For example, the Washington County School District’s lone standard high school posted an on-time high school graduation rate, technically known as the Four-Year Adjusted Cohort High School Graduation Rate – or ACGR, of 98.2 percent in 2015. However, the school’s Algebra II EOC proficiency rate in the 2013-14 school term was only 6.7 percent.

Clearly, the performance that passes as “competent” in Algebra II in Washington County is far lower than what the creators of the state’s Algebra II EOC expect. Since the Algebra II EOC comes from the same organization that creates the ACT college entrance test, it seems pretty likely that the test, not the district, provides a clearer view of the real picture.

At the other end of the graduation-versus-algebra spectrum is the Caverna Independent School District, which only graduated 76.7 percent of its students on time in 2015, but its proficiency rate on the Algebra II test one year earlier was a virtually identical 77.8 percent. This not only shows that a district can get its diploma award criteria right, but the Algebra II hurdle isn’t as insurmountable as folks in Washington County might think, either.

Sadly, only one other district, the Hazard Independent School District, has fairly close grad rate and Algebra II figures like Caverna’s.

Among Kentucky’s 168 districts that have high schools, 166 have a disparity between their on-time graduation rates and their Algebra II proficiency rates of 20 points or more. Clearly, if real Algebra competency is a graduation requirement, it looks like hollow diplomas are being handed out in massive quantities all across Kentucky.

The picture also looks very unsatisfactory in the second Bluegrass Institute analysis, which compares official graduation rates to the proportion of entering ninth-grade students who are leaving school four years later with enough education to qualify as college or career ready under at least one of the number of official ways the state determines readiness.

In this second analysis, the Covington Independent School District offers the most diploma quality concerns.

Officially, 81.9 percent of Covington’s students graduated on time in 2015. However, when the official college and/or career ready rate is applied to this graduation figure, it turns out that only 24.7 out of every 100 entering ninth-graders in Covington’s high school Class of 2015 were able to meet muster under any college and/or career ready criterion. That works out to a proportion of students that got an effective education, an “Effective High School Graduation Rate,” of only 24.7 percent. The gap between Covington’s official and effective graduation rate is an enormous 57.2 points.

The Covington situation is also widespread. It turns out that credibility of diplomas in the vast majority of Kentucky’s school districts fade away once the readiness picture is examined. Only four districts in the state have a single-digit gap between their official and effective high school graduation rates. In 146 districts, the gap exceeds 20 points.

Lots of kids are getting a piece of paper, but they are not getting the education that paper should represent.

The disparity between what it takes to get a diploma in Kentucky versus the skills business and industry need is not going unnoticed. The institute’s research was discussed by Kentucky Department of Education personnel at the August 3, 2016 meeting of the Kentucky Board of Education, and comments from the board chair make it clear that we can and should expect a lot more interest and investigation of this situation going forward.

To be sure, everyone in Kentucky would be better served by a credible high school diploma that is really backed by a solid education. It’s simply wrong that students are being led to believe they received an adequate education when, in reality, they were failed by the system responsible for preparing them for the rigors of a highly competitive 21st century global marketplace.

The Bluegrass Institute is Kentucky’s first and only free-market think tank and is dedicated to advancing sound public-policy solutions based on credible data and its principles of individual liberty, economic prosperity and limited – and transparent – government. For interview information, please contact staff education analyst Richard Innes at 859-466-8198 or

Link to the Bluegrass Institute’s Analysis Spreadsheet of Graduation Rates Versus Algebra II Proficiency Rates for All Kentucky School Districts

Link to the Bluegrass Institute’s Analysis Spreadsheet of Graduation Rates Versus the College and/or Career Ready Based Effective High School Graduation Rates

(Blog update adds new BIPPS phone number)


  1. Paul Gross says:

    Kentucky has been putting diplomas in the hands of students that cannot read them for some time. Used to be in charge of a HR department in Louisville. Regularly had applicants who could not read an application yet had a diploma

    • Richard Innes says:

      Paul Gross,

      I’ve heard similar comments elsewhere. We need to fix this. A diploma should mean something.