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June 17, 2015

NPR Questions Historic Graduation Rate

As I have written a couple times (here and here) the U.S. high school graduate rate has hit an all-time high of 81 percent this year. This is great news that should be celebrated.

However, last week NPR ran a serious of reports questioning whether indeed 8 out 10 9th graders graduate four years later. They even stated “… this number should be taken with a grain of salt.”

Why is NPR so skeptical of the 81 percent on-time graduation rate? Well, it is because they uncovered possible loopholes in some states that could be used to bolster graduation rates without in fact preparing more students for college and career success. For example, NPR points out:

  • At-risk students are transferring to less rigorous alternative schools or entering credit recovery programs.
  • Schools are pushing out at-risk students to alternative schools so if the student drops out, it doesn’t count against the original school’s graduation rate.
  • Schools are misidentifying a dropout as a transfer, for example, recording a student as a transfer to a private school even though they actually dropped out.
  • Districts are creating multiple pathways to a diploma to make it easier to graduate.

While these are all loopholes that are should be exposed, it is unlikely they had much impact on the overall national on-time graduation rate. It’s not to say that these practices aren’t a problem. In fact, NPR reporters did an exemplary job highlighting examples where these loopholes were taken full advantage of. However, none of the NPR reports provide data on the impact on the national graduation rate.

This is not a criticism of NPR’s reporting as they are journalists not researchers. With that said, here are reasons why the graduation rate is still a number worth celebrating and believing:

  • While credit recovery is a growing trend in education and their benefits are still in question, only a small portion of graduates actually ever enrolled in such programs.
  • The U.S. Dept. of Education has very specific rules on when a student can be counted as a transfer and which school gets credit if they graduate. Yet, no matter which school is responsible for push outs to alternative programs, it would have no impact on the national on-time graduation rates as those students are included in calculating the national rate, too. As such, push outs would only impact individual schools’ rates but not the national.
  • States have little flexibility on whether to identify a student who stops attending a school as a dropout or a transfer. In fact, states are required to verify with “official documentation” that a student enrolled in another school before they can be listed as a transfer. If it cannot be verified, the student must be identified as a dropout. However, as NPR noted different states have different requirements for what documentation is needed to verify transfers to home schooling and those students who may have left the country.
  • While it is true a number of states offer multiple types of diplomas, as NPR noted, for a student to count as a graduate they must have earned a standard high school diploma, or higher. Meaning, they must have earned a diploma whose requirements aligned with the states standards. Students who earned GEDs, Certificates of Attendance, IEP diplomas or otherwise modified diplomas are not counted as on-time graduates. Again, it is important to point out that different states have different requirements for earning a standard high school diploma. Simply offing multiple diploma levels does not necessarily lower the bar to earning a diploma. It just provides an opportunity to recognize those students who completed requirements above those aligned to the state standards.

The U.S. Department of Education has put in place a number of safeguards to close most loopholes. However, as NPR discovered some schools still may be exploiting the few small loopholes that remain. Yet, what their reporting doesn’t state explicitly is that their exploitation is likely the exception with little impact on the overall national graduation rate.

What is also important to point out is that prior to NCLB it was more of the rule that schools and states were taking advantage of similar loopholes when reporting graduation rates. Hence, the strict rules from the Department of Education for calculating a more accurate graduation rate. Furthermore, it should also be noted that the 81 percent rate is simply an on-time graduation rate and does not include those students who took more than four years to complete the standard diploma requirements. According to my report Better Late Than Never including late high school graduates would likely increase the national graduation rate by about 5 percentage point to about 86 percent.

It certainly can be argued that just because our schools are graduating 86 percent of students who enter high schools doesn’t mean that 86 percent of students leave college and career ready. As our report Out of Sync found most states that have adopted the Common Core have not aligned their graduation requirements to the college and career readiness standards of the Common Core. Even so, with only a few exceptions, states are now requiring more from students to obtain a standard high school diploma than when graduation rates were floundering two decades ago. So while there is more work to be done, it is nearly indisputable that more students are completing high school with more skills than any other time in our nation’s history. – Jim Hull






August 20, 2014

ACT scores improved while college readiness flattened

According to ACT’s The Condition of College & Career Readiness 2014 report released today, after several years of overall ACT scores remaining flat, scores dipped by two-tenths the between 2012 and 2013. This was likely due, at least partially, to the fact that ACT included students who required accommodations to take the test, such as extra time. Such students–on-average– typically perform lower, so their inclusion may have negatively impacted last year’s results. However, the Class of 2014 took back some of these losses by posting a gain of one-tenth of a point while still including all test takers.

Unlike overall scores that improved in 2014, the percent of students meeting ACT’s college readiness benchmarks remained flat after posting gains over the past several years. However, there were some differences by subject areas. In fact, more 2014 graduates met the college readiness benchmark in science than in 2013. On the other hand, fewer 2014 graduates met the college readiness benchmark in math than in 2013.

More positive results were found at the state level where all eight states that have administered the ACT to all students for multiple years as part of their statewide assessment systems (Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, North Carolina, North Dakota, Tennessee, and Wyoming) scored higher in 2014 than in 2013. In fact, a handful of these states make fairly dramatic gains in just the past year.

On the surface, the results don’t show much change in how prepared our graduates are for life after high school. Overall scores increased while there was no change in how many graduates were deemed college-ready. Keep in mind that ACT scores change very little from year to year so it will take several years to determine if these results are the start of a trend or not.

What is clear is that overall scores and college readiness results have not suffered, even as we’ve seen a record number of students graduate from high school on time, and seen a dramatic increase in the number of students taking the ACT test and advancing to college. Of course, there is room for improvement but these results show that our nation’s high schools are indeed preparing more students for college than ever before.— Jim Hull

 

Key findings below

State Scores

  • Of the 33 states where at least 40 percent of graduates took the ACT:
    • Minnesota once again achieved the highest composite score with 22.9.
      • However, just 76 percent of Minnesota 2014 graduates took the ACT
    • Graduates from Hawaii posted the lowest scores among states with a score of 18.2.
  • Of the 12 states where 100 percent of graduates took the ACT:
    • Utah had the highest score at 20.8, followed by Illinois (20.7) and Colorado (20.6).
    • North Carolina (18.9), Mississippi (19.0), and Louisiana (19.2) had the lowest scores out of this group.
    • Three states (Wyoming, Tennessee, and Kentucky) improved their scores by three-tenths of a point over the past year while Colorado, Michigan, and North Carolina improved their scores by two-tenths of a point.
      • Louisiana saw their scores drop by three-tenths of a point over the past year.

National Scores

  • The nation’s graduating Class of 2014 had an average composite score of 21.0, which was one-tenth of a point increase from 2013.  Scores had decreased by two-tenths of a point between 2012 and 2013 likely due to fact ACT included scores from students who received special accommodations such as extra time for the first time in 2013. Such students are typically lower performing students than those who do not receive accommodations.
    • At this score, an average high school graduate has about a 75 percent chance of getting admitted into a good college.*
  • Scores increased by two-tenths of a point in reading (21.3) and increased by one-tenth of point in English (20.3) and science (20.8) between 2013 and 2014, while scores on the math test remained at 20.9.
  • Scores for black and white students improved.
    • White graduates increased their scores by one-tenth of a point between 2013 and 2014 (22.2 to 22.3), although it was still a tenth of a point below their 2012 score.
    • The average black graduate score improved from 16.9 to 17.0 over the past year as well.
    • As for Hispanic graduates, their scores remained at 18.8 just as in 2013.

College Readiness

  • Twenty-six percent of 2014 high school graduates were college-ready in all four ACT subject tests (English, reading, math, and science), which is the same as in 2013 but a three percentage point increase since 2009.
    • Graduates who achieve these benchmarks are ready to succeed in first-year, credit-bearing college courses in the specific subjects ACT tests, according to ACT research. “Success” is defined as a 75% likelihood of earning a ‘C’ or better in the relevant course.
  • Little change in college readiness by subject.
    • The number of graduates reaching ACT’s college-ready benchmark in science increased by one percent from 2013 to 2014.
    • In math, the number of graduates deemed college-ready decreased by one percent.
    • In English and reading there was no change in the number of graduates being college-ready in those subject areas.

Core Course Rigor

  • Graduates who completed ACT’s recommended core curriculum were much more likely to be college-ready.
    • Two-thirds (67 percent) of graduates who completed at least four years of English courses were college-ready in English compared to 36 percent of those who did not. In reading, 46 percent of graduates who completed at least four years of English courses met ACT’s college-ready benchmarks for reading compared to 32 percent who did not.
    • There was a much greater disparity when it came to math and science.
      • For those graduates that completed three or more years worth of math nearly half (46 percent) were college-ready in math compared to just eight percent who did not.
      • For those graduates that completed three or more years worth of science nearly 41 percent were college-ready in science compared to just eight percent who did not.

Test Takers

  • About 57 percent of all 2014 high graduates took the ACT, compared to 54 percent in 2013 and 45 percent in 2009.
  • More minority graduates are taking the ACT.
    • In 2014, nearly 28 percent of ACT test-takers were Hispanic or black, compared to 24 percent in 2010.
    • Furthermore, the percentage of test-takers who were white decreased between 2010 and 2014, from 62 percent to 56 percent.

For more information on how to use college entrance exam scores to evaluate your school, check out the Center’s Data First Web site.

* Data based on calculations from the Center for Public Education’s Chasing the College Acceptance Letter: Is it harder to get into college





August 7, 2014

Math wars redux

A distinguished Berkeley mathematician took to the Wall Street Journal’s pages this week to criticize the Common Core math standards for being “several years behind” the old California standards, which she called “among the nation’s best.” Given the author and its substance, the op-ed is going viral through the anti-Common Core blogosphere, adding more proof that the nation’s math wars may yet rival the Hundred Years’ War between England and France for longevity.

(The op-ed is behind the WSJ paywall. However, non-subscribers can find this summary of it at Breitbart.com.)

The author, Marina Ratner, a professor emerita of mathematics at UC-Berkeley, devotes most of her column to describing ways Common Core math are lower than those that preceded them. She bluntly concludes that “adoption of the Common Core standards represents a huge step backward … [and] will move the U.S. even closer to the bottom in international ranking.”

While I respect Dr. Ratner’s professional expertise, her criticisms should be viewed in the proper context. As EDifier readers know, CPE has no political or organizational stake in the Common Core standards. But we do believe two things: that there is a legitimate public conversation to be had at the state level about whether to participate in national standards; and that this conversation should be based on good information about the Common Core.

That said, I like the Common Core math standards overall even though I have some quibbles. For example, I think the K-3 standards may be a little too much, too soon. But here’s what I like about them:

For one, the Common Core defines fewer math concepts in more depth. One of the biggest problems of mathematics in the U.S. compared to other high-achieving nations is that our math curriculum tends to be, what researcher William Schmidt called, “a mile wide and an inch deep.” The Common Core is the latest attempt to change that, hence the fewer, deeper thing. Typically, U.S. students spend the first three to six weeks at the beginning of each school year re-learning mathematics they were taught earlier, but forgot. That’s a ridiculous waste of time and resources. What’s worse, it hasn’t helped our students learn mathematics any better.

Dr. Ratner held special contempt for her sixth-grade grandson’s math work that called for the visualization of fractions, writing “simple concepts are made artificially intricate and complex with the pretense of being deeper—while the actual content taught was primitive.” But in fact, all of the modeling is designed to help students learn the concepts, basic concepts included, well enough the first time so they don’t have to repeat the same lessons over and over again.

I also like that the Common Core puts more emphasis on mathematical practices and data, probability and statistics (DPS) than we usually see in state standards. Dr. Ratner echoes criticisms from a handful of university mathematicians who privilege algebra/calculus-based mathematics over all other math domains, even though DPS is the dominant math of other disciplines, work and citizenship. From my point of view, the new emphasis on DPS and mathematical practices is the biggest strength of the Common Core. It should also be noted that graduates meeting the Common Core will, at minimum, have mastered what my math friends call “substantial Algebra II” and nothing precludes students from taking more math. Neither eighth-grade algebra nor high school calculus is going away.

As a Californian, Dr. Ratner was most distressed by her belief that the Common Core are lower standards than the state had before. She claims, in part, this is because California’s previous standards defined expectations for higher math courses, including pre-calculus and calculus. While this is true, this argument is missing some very important context. That is, the advanced math standards applied only to students who took those courses — not to all California students. In truth, California’s existing high school graduation requirements call for only two years of high school math and do not include Algebra II. A high school diploma in the state, therefore, does not mean the graduate has had exposure to higher math.

Finally, Dr. Ratner goes on to repeat a statement from one of the Common Core architects, Jason Zimba, that has been circulated among anti-Common Core activists as proof the standards are lower. As Dr. Ratner tells it, Dr. Zimba admitted in testimony that “the new standards wouldn’t prepare students for colleges to which ‘most parents aspire’ to send their children.”

Dr. Zimba, of course, is exactly right. The Common Core are intended to prepare all graduates to enter a two- or four-year college without the need for remediation. Many (not sure “most”) parents aspire to more selective colleges that will be looking for more on the high school transcript, especially for students wanting to enter STEM fields. Those parents will continue to make sure their child gets pre-calculus and calculus just as they did before the Common Core, and schools will continue to provide those courses. But for the vast majority of students, the new math standards will be a big step up.

In related news, Daniel Willingham of the University of Virginia provides a look back at earlier attempts to change math pedagogy so that students would learn concepts with deeper understanding. Beginning with the often-maligned New Math in the 1960s through the NCTM standards and now the Common Core, Willingham shows that the expectations were right, but that past efforts failed because of inadequate time and attention to helping teachers change their instruction. Whether we can muster the commitment this time to do it right remains to be seen. But if we don’t, we can expect the math wars to continue and the casualties we amass will be our students. — Patte Barth

 

Filed under: Common Core,Course taking,High school — Tags: , , — Patte Barth @ 4:44 pm





May 7, 2014

U.S. 12th-graders make small gains on national assessment

Today, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) released the results of the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in mathematics and reading for our nation’s 12th graders.  While the nation as a whole has seen significant improvements at the 4th and 8th grade levels, the same improvement has yet to show up at the end of high school. In neither math nor reading did scores significantly change from 2009—the last time 12th grade NAEP was administered. However, scores in math are higher than they were in 2005—the furthest back math scores can be compared. On the other hand, reading scores have remained relatively unchanged over the past decade and were slightly lower than in 1992—the first year the reading assessment was administered.

It is important to keep in mind that results for our 12th graders are dependent on how many students remained in school. Unlike at 4th and 8th grades where students are required to be in school, at the 12th grade level most students have the option of dropping out. When our high schools retain a larger proportion of students it could impact the results. This indeed may be the case as it was reported last week that our national graduation rate is at an all-time high of 80 percent– with a significant improvement since 2006. So it is possible that scores would have been higher if graduation rates remained near 70 percent as they were for most of the 1990s and early 2000s.

Yet, higher graduation rates can’t fully explain why scores at the 12th grade have basically flat-lined while they have accelerated in earlier grades because scores have not changed much for most student groups. The exception is math where Black, Hispanic, and Asian/Pacific Islander students made significant gains from 2005 to 2013 (5, 7, and 10 points respectively) although none of that increase is due to any improvements since 2009. Most scores were relatively unchanged no matter if groups were defined by parent’s highest education level, male or female, or high or low-performer.

What is clear is that those students who took more rigorous courses achieved the highest scores. Those students who took Calculus scored the equivalent to nearly 4 more years worth of learning than students whose highest math course was Algebra II or Trigonometry and nearly 7 more years worth of learning than those students who never completed a course beyond Algebra I. In reading, those students who say they discuss reading interpretations nearly every day achieve the equivalent to nearly two years worth of learning over students who rarely discuss reading interpretations.

Last week’s news about our historic graduation rate is certainly worth celebrating. Schools have also made strides at enrolling more students in high-level courses. But today’s NAEP results show that much more work still needs to be done. Simply earning a high school diploma is not enough. Students need to succeed in rigorous courses in high school to gain the knowledge and skills needed for the 21st century labor market.— Jim Hull

 






February 20, 2014

High school graduation rate at an all-time high

NAEPSecretary Duncan proudly wore number 80 on his jersey at the NBA celebrity All-Star game this past weekend— as well he should’ve. It just so happens the number 80 represents one of the best kept secrets in education: our national on-time graduation rate.

This may come as a shock to many as popular perception tends to be the myth that our public schools are flatlining. But the facts show otherwise, as recent data released by the National Center for Education Statistics show our national on-time graduation rate for our public high schools now stands at 80 percent— an all-time high.  It’s quite an accomplishment considering the rate hovered around 71 percent for much of the 1990s.

And keep in mind, the 80 percent graduation rate represents only those students who earned a standard high school diploma within four years of entering high school so it doesn’t include students who earned a high school equivalency (ex GED) or certificates of completion. Nor does it include those students who took more than four years to earn a standard high school diploma. As our report on late high school graduates Better Late Than Never found, including late high school graduates would likely add more than 5 percentage points to the national graduation rate. So the actual national graduation rate is quite likely closer to 90 than 80 percent.

What is even more impressive about these gains is that our high schools are serving an ever more diverse student population. Yet the overall graduation rate increased due to the substantial gains made by minority students. The on-time graduation rate for Hispanic students increased from 64 percent in 2008 to 75 percent in 2011. During this same time period the on-time graduation rate for black students improved from 61 percent to 67 percent. These are tremendous gains made in a relatively short amount of time. Let’s not overlook the fact that the graduation rate also continued to climb for white students during this same time period (81 to 84 percent).

While these are numbers worth celebrating they also show there is much more work to be done. The attainment gap between minority and white students needs to be closed. While they have narrowed in recent years, the narrowing needs to accelerate so minority students who are just entering school now will have the same chance to graduate as their white classmates.

Of course, simply giving students a diploma will not help them get a job or get into college. So, the diplomas they do receive must represent that fact that these students have completed courses they need to get into and succeed in college or get a quality job after high school. While there is more work to be done to ensure all students leave college and career ready, the data clearly shows our public schools are up the challenge. – Jim Hull






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