The graduation-proficiency gap in DPS

The recent Westword article on Denver North High School’s manipulation of its graduation rates, the  belief that “juking the stats” likely spreads beyond a single school and a sage comment at the end of Alan’s post wondering what other Denver high schools were affected all indicate that this is a topic where rhetoric might benefit from a closer relationship with data.

At its crux, the question is if graduation rates tell us something meaningful about how district schools are performing academically. And it sure looks like they do, but not in the way one might have hoped.

For what the North debacle — and a previous yet related controversy over Lincoln High School — bring into question is twofold. First, does a high school diploma signify a reasonable, baseline level of student achievement; and second, is the rise in DPS’s graduation rate spread evenly throughout the district or is being used by some schools to mask a lack of academic rigor and proficiency.

To answer the first question, we need to see if there a pervasive gap  – particularly at certain schools — between a school’s graduation rate and the ability of its alums to read, write, and do math at grade level.  As one teacher at North commented for the Wesword article, are we reaching a point where someone could say “Oh, they went to North? They’ll give a diploma to anyone” – and for how many schools might this be an issue?

So here is a quick graph comparing respective 2010 graduation rates (data here) and 2010 average proficiency rates* (from CDE’s schoolview.org) at a number of notable, open-enrollment DPS high schools.

The red line indicates the trend; the schools above the line will have more students who graduate with solid academic skills; those below the line will have more graduates who lack basic proficiency. How far you are from the line shows the gap: well above the line pretty much guarantees a close correlation between graduation and at least a base level of academic ability; well below the line increases the likelihood that a diploma has little relation to academic skills.

What do we see? Joining North below the trendline and as prominent outliers are Bruce Randolph and MLK – both of whom have graduation rates within spitting distance of 90 percent, and yet proficiency rates that are but a small fraction of those numbers. Also below the trendline, but somewhat closer, are Kennedy and Montbello; while Lincoln teeters just above the line but with poor scores on both. And perhaps this will surprise no one, but is is exactly these schools who have had the most recent progress with graduation rates, and DPS has not been shy on trumpeting this data as a mark of success.

The recent increases in DPS graduation rates seem to be driven by precisely this same set of schools — all of whom lag badly in academic proficiency.  While both Bruce Randolph and MLK are graduating their first class and don’t have previous data, the other schools all have double-digit percentage increases from 2009 (North 21 percent, Kennedy 17 percent, Montbello 15 percent and Lincoln 14 percent), while the four schools with higher proficiency saw far smaller jumps (East 4 percent, GW 6 percent, DSST 8 percent, and  TJ 10 percent).

So, are these schools masking their poor academic progress with the easier task of boosting graduation rates?  Should we celebrate these schools for their progress with graduation rates (as President Obama did with Bruce Randolph), or question why few of their graduates are able to do basic academic work? Particularly for administrators (as the Westword article showed), it may be far easier to achieve — ethically or not — higher graduation percentages (and proclaim your school a success) then the more difficult work of driving better academic results. Should one obscure the other, or should the two go hand-in-hand.

Mind the Gap

To look at the same data a slightly different way, here is a table showing the same schools, this time ranked on the final column of a graduation-to-proficiency gap (the ratio of graduation percentage over average proficiency).

There is one school with a graduation rate significantly above the mean, and a proficiency rate significantly below the mean: Bruce Randolph.  North places second, and it is testimony to its low proficiency that they do so while still ranking significantly below the mean in graduation rate.  Montbello manages the largest gap with stunning inadequacy at both ends, including some single-digit proficiency scores and the second-lowest graduation rate overall. Lincoln and MLK round out the quintet of schools where the numbers look askew (with Kennedy pretty close behind). While it is a somewhat arbitrary line, a gap ratio greater than 2:1 is a good place for further examination.

Does this mean that some of these schools, along with North, are “juking their stats”? It’s not clear – many are also achieving higher than average academic growth (including Bruce Randolph and MLK) — but then again, diplomas are intended to indicate some measure of academic proficiency, not growth.  And, as Westword pointed out, North, Montbello and Lincoln all have full-blown Credit Recovery centers offering a different (and let’s be honest and say a far less rigorous) path to graduation. In many ways, in boosting graduation rates — and any lowering of standards to ease the path to a diploma as is clearly the case at North — these schools are probably digging their proficiency holes even deeper.  It means not just that these schools may fulfill the fear articulated by the teacher at North of awarding a diploma to just about anyone, but that the gap may increase still further.

And, perhaps more importantly, does it even matter if the heightened graduation rates are “juked” (with programs such as online Credit Recovery) or honestly achieved if they are not accompanied by increased academic proficiency? In 2010, DPS increased its graduation rate by 5.4 percent but saw a boost in overall proficiency of just 1.3 percent (and that was for all schools – I’d bet for traditional high schools the proficiency increase was probably flat).  If you were a school administrator, where would you put your efforts (and what can you better control)? And if you were DPS, to which measure would you prefer to highlight?

Is Graduation an Academic Measure?

For the larger issue is a point on which there is surprising disagrement: Is it the primary purpose of public schools to graduate students with a certain threshold of academic skill?

A surprising number of people – some of them friends, many of them reasonable – argue that, particularly in high-poverty urban schools, academic achievement is subordinated to other measures. Advocates of these schools would say that increased graduation rates means kids are not dropping out, are meeting other metrics of responsibility (such as attendence and basic class assignments) to earn passing grades, and are absorbing critical social and other skills that leave them more mature and better equipped for their lives after high school.  Under this rubric, it is an achievement to simply keep these kids in school at all.

Detractors would argue that the purpose of schools is not simply to warehouse kids in a safe facility and build social aptitude, but to impart some basic level of academic ability, and that allowing them to graduate without these skills may do more harm than good, particularly when many of these students — who have, after all, successfully passed their classes — have no idea that they are ill-prepared compared to many of their peers, and will quickly find that the demands of college or the modern workforce far outstrip their preparation. There is no second chance at K-12 education.

A related problem involves rising remediation rates – the percentages of students who go to college who are unprepared and have to retake classes at a high-school level.  As Alanpointed out just over a year ago, this is a state-wide issue, but many of these same DPS schools (North, Montbello, Lincoln) are again leading the pack. There is a good and reasonable debate on what these remediation numbers really mean, but at a minimum, the relative differences between schools is cause for apprehension.  And in looking at proficiency scores, we are talking here about something even more fundamental – not just if students are prepared to continue on to higher education, but for those who have decided to stop (or are unable to continue) their scholastic careers, do they have the academic skills that one might expect after 13 years of public education?

Several states now require some independent assessment for graduation. California, by way of example, has a High School Exit Exam, which survived a considerable legal challenge on its way to becoming law. When they first instituted the test, nearly 20 percent of seniors failed it. Recent classes have done better. This exam is hardly draconian: one gets eight chances to pass, the test measures English at a 10th grade level and Math at an 8th grade level, and it requires just 60 percent or less of correct answers to pass. But if you have a high school diploma in California, it has a set meaning – one that connotes something of value to both its student recipients and the employers who seek to hire them. Does a diploma in Denver have the same meaning?

For these diplomas are widely viewed as a critical and central measure of public education. In the most recent (and final) mayoral debate, both candidates criticized DPS’s current 52 percent graduation rate and singled out graduation percentages as an important metric they would track to better understand the success and progress (or lack thereof) of public education in Denver. Graduation rates were mentioned more times than any other single metric, academic or otherwise.

As moderator of the debate, I asked both candidates about the graduation problems at North, and if they favored an independent academic assessment at graduation (or at other points in K-12 education) so that a DPS diploma would indicate a certain level of academic achievement. Both candidates somewhat slipped past the question without answering it directly (hear the question and responses in the full podcast at 36:30 to 40:40 via  linkor download).

Asking for a higher graduation rate without also wanting to measure or interpret what it may mean is the norm, and not just for politicians. This is partly due to the heightened political climate of Denver’s education debate, where a reform-oriented administration pumps up some stats beyond what they may deserve, while any negative news is seized by defenders of the status quo as a way to criticize the superintendent and  weaken the administration and its reforms. This discourse makes rational discussion increasingly difficult.

But aside from the political theatre, the people who are harmed the most by the graduation-proficiency gap are the legitimate students from many of these schools who have worked hard and justly earned their diplomas, only to find this achievement largely debased both by the actions of their peers, and a system that — rightly or wrongly — seems to increasingly use the mantra of “multiple measures of achievement” to boost graduation and other metrics while undermining academic preparation and proficiency. This, after all, is the blunt narrative at the heart of public education’s problems: adults fighting each other to protect jobs and for political supremacy while kids suffer.

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Note: It might be more accurate for a particular class to use 10th grade proficiency from 2008 (since this will be the graduation class in 2010), but I thought it was a more complete to look at the proficiency for the school overall, and also more fair if a school has had significant academic progress in intermittent two years.

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