Delving into those Graduation-Rate Numbers

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?

Bacon’s Rebellion — asking the tough questions so you don’t have to!

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7 responses to “Delving into those Graduation-Rate Numbers”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    Here’s an interesting chart that shows the “cut” rates.

    look at the two columns – “fail/basic” and ” pass/proficient”.

    for the first row – Grade 3 Reading – what column would you be in if you passed 15 out of 40?

    For End of Course Reading – 31 out of 55 is a pass.

    and I bet if you looked at these on a per school basis – it would be ugly for some of them

  2. Hill City Jim Avatar
    Hill City Jim

    This may be one of those statistical anomalies where NOVA skews all the averages. Their student’s SOLs and graduation rates are so much higher than those non-NOVA rates of success.

  3. SAT scores are another way of looking at improvements. SAT’s are taken by the better students; therefore, they are a good measure of equal opportunity rather than equal outcomes. Here is an analysis of the history of SAT scores for FCPS schools: Here is an SAT comparison among the DC-area schools:

  4. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    This is one of the reasons I think schools, both private and public, should be measured on the number of students in post-secondary education that are taking remedial classes.

  5. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: SAT as well as AP , dual enrollment and vocational ED.

    I believe that K-12 is not all about college that for some it’s about getting the education and skills needed to make a living – not necessarily with college or at least the 4yr traditional only but instead , 2yr as well as vocational certificates.

    that’s why I think ALL of these things should be measured two ways.

    first for participation and second for pass rate.

    I find it shocking looking at the participation and pass rate for AP for folks supposedly on a college track!

    I’d like to see what happens to the kids who don’t graduate and go to 4yr college…

    The purpose of K-12 is not just college prep. It’s to produce an employable workforce and that includes all of those occupations that follow K-12 that are not traditional 4yr college degree.

    to a certain extent – the 4yr college focus of the schools is , in my view, a misguided all or nothing proposition where the kids not bound for 4yr are considered to be a lower tier of achievement and often times receive less resources toward non-college education and training for vocation careers.

    For every doctor – there are 10, 20 para and technician jobs. They don’t pay what a doctor makes – but they pay well enough for someone to make a decent living, raise a family and not need entitlements.

    Many careers in computers, cyber-security, big data – need specialized education rather than 4yr college degrees.

    we need to get serious about the purpose of taxpayer-funded K-12 education is. It’s not about 4-yr college or “bust”.

  6. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    I find it impossible to take seriously these statistics.

    High school graduation rates in far too many high schools in Virginia signify nothing reliable in terms of academic achievement.

    In today’s world of secondary education the fact that a student graduates from high school is not a reliable indicator of that he or she has the most basic minimal skills, much less proficiency, in reading, writing or math.

    Today, a remarkably high number of students who read, write, and compute at a 5th grade level graduate from the high schools. That means they posses insufficient skills to learn from their reading written words, nor can they express themselves in writing.

    These high school graduates stopped their learning academically in the 5th grade. They largely wasted their intervening 7 years of schooling then simply graduated from high school. Many of these illiterate high school graduates go on to the College. Some graduate from college under an equally fraudulent system designed to use them as cash cows until they give up, or earn a worthless college degree.

    Meanwhile, a shockingly low percentage of high school graduates are upon H. S. graduation, deemed proficient in reading, writing, and math.

    The majority of these students deemed proficient are also unprepared for college. Many of them along (with their illiterate colleagues) also go to and sometimes graduate from colleges after learning next to nothing while they incur crippling debt that goes into college coffers for a fraudulent college education and worthless college degree if they hang around long enough, often after 6 to 8 lost years of fruitless effort that wastes whatever chance they had to learn the skills necessary to find and take advantage of gainful employment, with a future worthy of a life their parents enjoyed.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      An excellent primer on this subject is “Academically Adrift.”

      It is written by two College professors. One teaches at the University of Virginia.

      This authoritative book describes the woeful high school preparation of many students for college.

      It also delves deeply into the terrible compromises that many colleges now make to keep these ill prepared and academically dysfunctional college students in college classrooms, far too many of them paying for educations they do not receive.

      The reasons for this scandal ongoing are many. The causes and corruptions now are deeply embedded in our schools, in all levels of our government, and in our culture generally.

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