In Connecticut, official high school graduation rates are on the rise — to 87 percent in 2014 from 79 percent in 2009. This trend holds true for all demographic groups.
But do these numbers tell the whole story?
The main issue is that, in these calculations, there are plenty of students who disappear — neither counted as graduates nor as someone who didn’t graduate. For example, they could’ve been held back a grade or transferred to another school before graduation. The state lists more than 20 different reasons for students to be removed from or added to a cohort.
But when trying to track these details, the state won’t provide this data, even in a way that would protect student privacy. (I’ve asked for it.) And this means there are a lot of unknowns.
At Amistad Academy charter school, 37 students started the ninth grade in 2008. By the end of senior year, there were 15 graduates. Using simple math, that should mean the graduation rate is 41 percent. But according to the state and federal departments of education, the official graduation rate was 71 percent.
How can one calculation get us to 41 percent, but another get us to 71 percent?
In 2011, the federal government began requiring all states to report graduation rates in a uniform way. The method that the U.S. Department of Education adopted was called the “Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate,” or ACGR. The idea was supposed to be simple:
- Count the students who enter the ninth grade and follow the same group over time.
- Remove students who transfer out.
- Add students who transfer in.
- Finally, divide the number of students who graduate in four years by the number of kids remaining in this group. Anyone who doesn’t officially transfer out of the cohort is considered a non-graduate.
So, back to that high school: The data tells us that 18 of the original 37 students were removed from the calculations; they either transferred to another school or left the state. There is no mention of these students in the graduation rate.
After a few students transferred in, the school officially had 21 students in the cohort — 15 of whom graduated.
|New State/Federal method (ACGR)||15||(37 – 18)||71%|
A lot of hidden information
The state and federal government say their method is a better of way of counting graduation rates. Up until this point, the state used a variety of methods to determine graduation and “dropout” rates. All of these methods had weaknesses, as does this new one.
But the current way the state and the feds calculate graduation rates hides quite a bit, and we may not accurately know the outcomes for entire racial and ethnic groups. For example, the official method says there were hundreds of Latino students in the class of 2012 who graduated in four years — and hundreds who did not. (See chart.) But this method makes it possible that many more students did not actually earn a diploma.
What we know is that for every 2012 Latino graduate in Hartford, there was another who dropped out and another who disappeared from the original cohort. Where did these Latino high school students go? Did they repeat the ninth grade in the previous year? Did they transfer out of their school or the district?
State data on transfers would help us understand what’s going on here and where we might be able to better support these kids. Even simple charts, like the one above, required three different data sources to construct because the state does not report its graduation rate with these details.
Cause of increased rates: unknown
As National Public Radio recently reported, there are a variety of ideas about why graduation rates are increasing — but we really don’t know. In fact, every state and demographic group in the country is posting increased graduation rates, including Connecticut. So whatever is happening is a national trend.
Plenty of people and groups are taking credit for the graduation rate increase. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy says his education bill, which took effect in 2012, caused the increase. But graduation rates have increased since before Governor Malloy took office in 2011, and in many cases the increases in the graduation rate have appeared to get smaller each year since 2009.
Other unaccounted factors
Finally, there are a number of unanswered questions.
We don’t know how schools and districts have responded to the new graduation rate method. The federal government required the use of graduation rates as a form of rating schools in 2012. Do schools now have an incentive to graduate more students, one way or another, thus distorting this measure?
Reports out of Texas show that thousands of students have been counted as “other leavers” rather than “drop-outs,” thus inflating their graduation rate. Education researcher Julian Vasquez Heilig has frequently raised questions about this clever labeling of students that can distort graduation rates.
We don’t know the impact of “online credit recovery,” which is a new way for students who did not pass a regular high school course the first time to take the same course again — but online. Beginning in the 2010–11 school year, the Connecticut legislature began requiring many low-income school districts with low graduation rates to offer “online credit recovery.” In Connecticut, the students in these districts are often Black, Puerto Rican and Latino. As the Mirror reported in 2012 (Part I and Part II), students can now get these credits from the online course toward a regular high school diploma. Did this make it easier to obtain high school credits towards a diploma through online courses in these districts?
So the next time you read about increased graduation rates, use caution. The graduation rates show as much as they hide.
This essay is based on a post entitled, “What We Don’t Know About CT Graduation Rates: 5 Question originally posted at The Cities, Suburbs, and Schools Project site.
Robert Cotto, Jr. is a member of the Hartford Board of Education and a lecturer in the Educational Studies Program at Trinity College.
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