When New York City’s graduation rate rose to nearly 76% in 2018, city officials claimed it was due to their education agenda. However, this increase also took place as more students started utilizing alternative pathways to graduation, raising questions about how much the grad rate has to do with student learning and academic success, Chalkbeat reports.
- Two policies are thought to be contributing: First, the score students are required to earn on the five Regents exams – which they need to pass to graduate – is now lower. In addition, an option called "4 +1" allows students to substitute one of the five Regents exams with one of a handful of alternative assessments.
Expanding options is part of a larger effort to ease New York’s rigorous high school graduation requirements, as research shows high school exit exams do not boost achievement, but do increase dropout rates among vulnerable students. State officials have made at least 15 changes to city graduation requirements in the hope of boosting the grad rate, Chalkbeat notes, but some worry they will incentivize students to take easier classes and will misrepresent other metrics including test scores.
Across the country, test scores are less likely to represent graduation rates, and there's a growing discrepancy between how much grad rates are rising and students' increased academic success. According to a report by NPR, these rates have been rising since 2002, when the No Child Left Behind Act required states to make grad rate improvements. Between 2001 to 2013, graduation rates climbed from 72% to 81%, and in 2018, the nation's high school graduation rate hit an all-time high.
While higher graduation rates make for good news because of more initiatives such as early intervention for at-risk students, there is also suspicion that the higher grad rates are a result of a lower bar that students have to hit to get their diplomas. Districts are also being accused of gaming the system by moving at-risk students off the books, transferring them out of the district or not classifying them correctly, among other tactics.
Scenes like this are playing out around the country. For example, when Alabama’s on-time graduation rate jumped from 72% in the 2010-11 school year to 86% in the 2013-14 year, the inspector general for the U.S. Department of Education conducted an audit of how the state calculated its rate for the 2013-14 school year. It found students were removed from cohorts for undetermined reasons, and there was no paper trail to account for it. In addition, alternative diplomas awarded to special education students would be counted as regular diplomas, even though this diploma does not meet the state’s diploma course requirements.
The NPR study cited above finds that the push for higher graduation rates is often at the expense of students who were at risk not to graduate and were then pushed out of the district tally. Students in Chicago were being removed from schools by transferring them to an alternative school, but mislabeling them as “out of district transfers.”
While increases in accountability and metrics mean a greater emphasis on ensuring grad rates go up, school leaders should ensure that the learning that's going on in the classroom is also increasing. As one researcher told Chalkbeat, "If states and local districts allow all sorts of other factors to come into play ... then over time high school graduation rates will grow more removed from academic achievement."