by James A. Bacon
Yesterday the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) issued a press release touting an improved percentage of students graduating from Virginia high schools. Local media treated the story as filler material, re-writing the press release and throwing in some stats from local school divisions. Fortunately citizens and bloggers are on top of the job, asking the tough questions. (Whether the political class pays attention to us is a different matter entirely.)
Larry Gross, an habitue of the Bacon’s Rebellion comments section, asks a pertinent question: What is the value of high school degree if a student can earn it while failing one or more SOLs?
In 2015, 90.5% of all students entering ninth grade four years before managed to graduate from high school, according to VDOE data. Those graduating students took the 8th grade SOLs in the 2010-2011 school year. The pass rates that year were 90.4% for English, 88.4% for writing, 83.2% for math and 92.3 for science. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that, unless some dramatic improvement occurred during their high school years, a meaningful percentage of 2015 graduates fell short of basic math proficiency.
The numbers look even worse when we consider the revised and tougher SOL standards introduced a couple of years ago. Statewide pass rates for the current crop of 8th graders were as follows this past year: English 75.2%, writing 71.5%, math 73.5% and science 78.3%. What will it say about the value of a Virginia high school degree if more than 90% of those students succeed at graduating?
John Butcher, author of Cranky’s Blog, argues that VDOE and local school divisions inflate the on-time graduation rate by including “modified standard diplomas” and “special diplomas.” For what it’s worth, the “standard” and “advanced studies” diplomas are the only ones recognized by the federal government for purposes of calculating graduation rates.
Some school divisions, Butcher suggests, game the system by aggressively moving poor-performing students into tracks that will earn them less rigorous “special diplomas” and “modified standard diplomas” generally reserved for children with disabilities.
Educational administrators are under intense pressure to show improved educational performance. It’s human nature to try to game the system. Citizens have to ask the tough questions that no one in the political class seems to be asking: Do the gains in graduation rates reflect gains in educational achievement or are they illusory?
Jim Weigand, another frequent contributor to the comments, ranked the graduation rates of Virginia’s school districts, as seen here. At the top of the list with the highest graduation rates: the City of Falls Church, the town of West Point, Charles City County, Page County and Clarke County. At the bottom of the list: Waynesboro, Alexandria, Danville, Dinwiddie County and Petersburg.
Take two school systems — Waynesboro and West Point. Both are small municipalities. Both are largely blue collar. And roughly one-fifth of the population of both jurisdictions consist of disadvantaged minorities (black, Hispanic, American Indian). But the graduation rate for the 2015 class of West Point students was 98.4%, while for Waynesboro it was 79.7%. What’s going on? Why does one out-perform the other by such a wide margin?
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