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Rising Graduation Rate Skepticism

Ordinarily, rising graduation rates would be cause for celebration.  But these are not ordinary times.  Pressure to look good in this critical area has caused many school districts to play fast and loose with standards ("In the search for better graduation rates, schools are fudging the numbers" Los Angeles Times, Jun. 26).  

The Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation's second largest, is a case in point.  Officials panicked in December when its new policy requiring all students to pass the full range of college-prep courses took effect.  It showed that only half of students were slated to graduate, which compared with 75 percent the year before.  But in what seemed too good to be true, a few months later 67 percent suddenly were on track to graduate.

The district attributed the turnaround to more counseling, and to Saturday and after-school classes. But the more likely reason was that only students attending comprehensive high schools were counted.  Those who had been transferred to alternative programs, where the risk of dropping out was highest, were not included. The data also relied heavily on online credit-recovery classes.  I've written before why I don't believe these classes can possibly offer students the same benefits of traditional classes.  Yes, they will boost the closely watched graduation rate in Los Angeles and elsewhere, but they shortchange students and deceive taxpayers. Finally, the high school exit exam was cancelled.

But there is one criticism of credit-recovery that I don't agree with.  I'm referring to how pre-testing is used.  If students can demonstrate through pre-testing that they already possess certain knowledge and skills, why in the world should they not be allowed to skip instructional units concerning those?   In fact, I wish that traditional courses would use pre-testing.  No wonder so many students are bored.  Maybe it's that they have already mastered the material.  Moreover, using pre-testing properly would help identify what teachers have actually taught in their class, rather than get credit for what students have brought to their class.

In the final analysis, graduation legerdemain is one more reason why the parental choice movement is picking up speed.  When parents lose confidence in traditional public schools, they eventually seek alternative ways to educate their children.

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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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