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Graduation Rate is 'Bogus,' Valley High Principal Says


Those of you who have been following my posts on Valley High in Las Vegas might find the next chapter interesting: a chat with the school's principal.

Last week, I had blogged about the fact that the school was being honored by the state of Nevada as a "high-achieving exemplary turnaround" school because of the impressive gains in its test scores, despite the fact that it has a graduation rate of 55 percent.

I got a talking-to from longtime schools activist Mike Klonsky in Chicago, who said I ought to be ashamed of myself for not giving Valley High teachers more credit for the test score gains. I shared our friendly debate about it earlier this week.

Then I had the pleasure of chatting with Valley High's principal, Ron Montoya, on the phone. He'd been out of pocket and unable to return my call until a few days after my first blog post. I asked him to share his thoughts on his school's being honored as high-achieving and exemplary while still losing nearly half its students before graduation.

He noted that his school has made huge strides in its grad rate; it was at 42 percent last year, now it's at 55 percent. Some of that improvement, he said, is due to better dropout tracking. Some of the kids school officials thought had dropped out couldn't be found, but some were, in fact, in school programs elsewhere, so they no longer counted as dropouts, he said. Some of the improvement is due to strategies like differentiated instruction and better-targeted remediation, and to offering students more chances to catch up with their work online, Mr. Montoya said.

Certainly that is a big gain in the grad rate, and it's nice to know more kids are getting diplomas. But I still wanted to know what he thought about the state accountability system's way of handing out these honors. (To earn the honor Valley High got, it had to raise test scores in big ways, but it didn't have to exceed the 50 percent grad rate threshold required to make adequate yearly progress in Nevada under the No Child Left Behind Act.)

So, at the risk of ticking him off, I asked Mr. Montoya his thoughts on this. He's a pleasant fellow, and didn't seem put off by the question. And he had a straightforward answer.

"The grad rate number is bogus," he said. Since the number is "inaccurate and unfair," Mr. Montoya said, it would be equally unfair for the state to demand that a school's grad rate improve along with its test scores in order to earn the kind of distinction Valley has earned.

"In our case, 75 percent of our kids are Hispanic, and many are Mexicans who go back and forth between here and there. It's impossible to find most of them," said Mr. Montoya, who was himself born in Mexico and was mentored by grandparents who were migrant farmworkers. "So schools like mine [would] get dinged on graduation rates instead of success rates."

Parents are another factor that is out of the school's control, Mr. Montoya said, yet contributes to graduation-rate challenges.

"[The dropout problem is] not the school's fault, it's the parents' fault," he said. "Why should a school get tagged a failure because a parent won't send a child to school?"

Interesting thoughts on a challenging situation. Please share your thoughts as well.


I agree with the principal of Valley High. Using high school graduation rates as a measure of a school's success is unfair and naive. For example, school A has a 90% graduation rate, but most students elect to take courses that are not demanding. Those who take AP classes are given so many accommodations that those classes lose all rigor and meaning. School B offers tutoring help to students, but the classes are rigorous and students MUST put in many hours of study to receive credit. They have a graduation rate of 75%. Which is the better school? I was an assistant principal at a high school and know that many students get credit for courses because they are breathing and attend class on a somewhat regular basis. If teachers fail too many students they are reprimanded by the administration and receive many parent complaints. So, teachers practice defensive teaching; they pass students with a "D" to avoid parent complaints and poor teacher evaluations. "D" has become the new "F". Parents and students feel good about achieving the high school diploma and administrators feel good about raising graduation rates and avoiding embarrassing low grades for poor performance, but the high college dropout rate tells the story of what students know when they leave high school. So, is a school's graduation rate a reflection of its strength? Maybe, maybe not.

The first step in improving is admitting which indicators in your situation are bogus. Grad rates, dropout rates, and attendance are the easiest numbers to play with in my experience. Similarly, highly mobile rules provide a magic wand producing educational miracles on paper. Even if you don't want to get really creative as in Texas or NYC, its easy to turnaround any outputs by just hiring another secretary to make the numbers come out good without actually lying.

The principal's honesty speaks well of him.

It is unfortunate that this principal and many of us in education believe that the failures of our system come from parents and their children. My questions are, do all the children who attend regularly succeed greatly? How are you judging parental interest? What are educators doing to engage students in authentic, meaningful learning? We need to examine our own practice before blaming others.I am not pointing fingers at educators here, but we need to take control of this situation.

I would say that a school that ups its scores as well as its grad rate is deserving of notice. Certainly job one in accomplishing such a feat has to be "cleaning the data," or paying some attention to whether a kid who is listed as a drop-out has really dropped out--so that there can be some faith in the numbers. One of my sons' schools had horrendous attendance numbers--that really needed to be attended to. On the other hand, I knew that their record keeping was a mess. Everytime we had a morning IEP meeting I would get a call in the evening from the tape-dialer. Likewise, there were some sick days that were never recorded. And everthing in between became pretty questionable. The had to set up a one person tracking system when we set improved attendance as an IEP goal--because the school system was so unreliable.

All that aside, it's tiresome for the official (as in reported by a school official) response to bad news always to be to discount the data. Our superintendent stood in front of the press one year and announced that the state reading test had been harder that year--accounting for a drop in test scores. Far more likely that the new math program was distracting--and more helpful to point out that the drop, while disappointing, was not significant.

But the part that got my goat sufficiently to look this blog up after the principal's response was reported in ASCD, was the idea that "the parents" are a factor beyond the school's control. What on earth does that mean? (on top of the assertion that they are all Mexicans). I suppose its true that just as no one gets to pick their own parents, so the school doesn't get to pick the parents their students have? And that just begs the question--so what?

It has become way too fashionable of late, when one's back is against the wall, after declaring the data to be bogus, to then blame the students for being cognitively not able to handle the work and in the end to blame the parents for making them that way. It's like the gunman who claims he didn't shoot anyone and anyway he didn't mean to kill them.

Personally, I congratulate Mr. Montoya for making improvements--particularly in being able to increase scores at the same time as the graduation rate. Yes--we know that neither measure is perfect. But we also know that it is far easier to manipulate one if no one is paying attention to the other.

But, now it is time to start conversing with those parents. It's time to throw away the scapegoats. As far as I can tell, it is in the nature of parents to want their children to do well, and to have a life better than the one the parents have experienced. It's time to start finding out from them what better looks like.

John Thompson,

You could be ostracized from the education consulting industry for writing such truthful observations!

Mr. Montoya is sadly correct about the accuracy of dropout rates given out by most schools, school districts, and states. They are "bogus." They are too often manipulated. If Houston ISD can claim dropout rates below 1%, as happened just before their superintendant was pulled to Washington by President Bush, then anything is possible.

The only way to get an accurate image of student movement in any school district is for that school district to add 15 numbers (pre-K through 12th grade plus number of diplomas granted) each year to an online spreadsheet. It must be one that is easy to locate on their district web site. That spreadsheet should cover many years, going back as many years as their are numbers available for. It will tell the history of a community from a very fascinating perspective. It will also show how many student are in each 9th grade class and how many graduate four years later. It will not say how many actually were in both groups, just the size of each group. It gives a far more accurate image of a communities dropout rate that almost any numbers now generated and given out that I know of anywhere in the US.

Why do schools and school districts resist being so transparent about the history of student movement within their schools? They could always place footnotes to explain dramatic fluctuations in student movement due to population shifts over 3%. Such footnoted incidents could include a Hurricane Katrina or other such disaster, a major employer closing or opening, etc....

A community could only benefit from such an increased transparency. It would help eliminate the ability of a secretary in an attendance office to be directed to manipulate dropout numbers. Examples of such a simple spreadsheet for Dallas are at www.studentmotivation.org along with a significant cure for dropout crisis we face as a nation.

Comments are now closed for this post.


Recent Comments

  • Bill Betzen: Mr. Montoya is sadly correct about the accuracy of dropout read more
  • Daniel J. Fallon: John Thompson, You could be ostracized from the education consulting read more
  • Margo/Mom: I would say that a school that ups its scores read more
  • Patricia Chesbro: It is unfortunate that this principal and many of us read more
  • john thompson: The first step in improving is admitting which indicators in read more




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