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Skepticism Over Rising Graduation Rates

When a state announces that its graduation rate has hit a record high, it is ordinarily cause for celebration.  That would seem to be the case in Texas, where 88 percent of public-school students in the class of 2013 earned a diploma in four years ("With Climbing Graduation Rates Come Renewed Doubts," The New York Times, Sept. 25).  Only Iowa reported a higher rate.

But I wonder if there is not more to the story. Is the new high the result of lower standards?  Let's not forget that it's altogether possible to boost the graduation rate by tinkering with requirements for a diploma. For example, credit recovery allows students who fail classes needed to graduate to make up the work in a few days.  I say this devalues a diploma. New York City was in the news in 2008 in this regard ("Lacking Credits, Some Students Learn a Shortcut," The New York Times, Apr. 11, 2008).  

The trouble with credit recovery is that it has little accountability. When students are able to get credit for an entire course by putting in about 10 hours of work, something is fishy.  It sends the wrong message to other students who do the work all semester long.  Yet concern about students dropping out apparently overrides concern about standards.  I have nothing against online courses that are equal in rigor to traditional courses.  But so far the former are the exceptions.

Since the news concerns Texas, I take it with a particularly heavy dose of skepticism.  That's because of the "Texas Miracle."  During the 2000 presidential campaign, President Bush cited the amazing results achieved in Texas, especially in Houston, where dropout rates plummeted and test scores skyrocketed under Superintendent Rod Paige.  But it turned out that the miracle was a mirage.  I wonder whether the same outcome awaits the news about the graduation rate in the state.

Then there's the situation in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation's second largest ("L.A. Unified reports big rise in its graduation rate," Los Angeles Times, Oct. 4).  With great fanfare, the district reported an historic-high graduation rate of 77 percent for the 2013-14 school year. This was 12 percentage points better than the previous year.  But a closer look revealed that the rate was based on students enrolled only in comprehensive high schools.  It omits students who transfer to alternative programs.  It's the latter group that is most likely to drop out.  

That's why when something seems almost too good to be true, it probably is.  

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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