Graduation Inflation

Pufferfish photo credit: Walt En On’s Reisblog

by John Butcher

The estimable Jim Bacon points out that the (already inflated: see below) graduation rate this year was higher than the pre-COVID 2019 rate, despite the effect of the pandemic and the government’s response to it. The Virginia Department of Education’s excellent new Cohort Graduation Build-A-Table provides a more nuanced look.

The reports we see in the press are the “On-Time Graduation Rate.” This rate “expresses the percentage of students in a cohort who earned a Board of Education-approved diploma within four years of entering high school for the first time.” This rate inflates the count of standard and advanced diplomas by including the modified standardspecial, and general achievement diplomas.

To their credit, the federales want a count of the standard and advanced diplomas, the Federal Graduation Indicator (FGI). Data below are FGI from the 2019 and 2022 4-year cohort reports.

Another wrinkle: “Economically Disadvantaged” (ED) students (essentially those who qualify for the free lunch program) generally score lower on the SOL tests and graduate at lower rates than their more affluent peers (Not ED). Thus, pass rates and graduation rates of the schools and divisions depend in part on the percentages of ED students. The cohort report and graphs below provide data for both groups.

There were no Standards of Learning tests in 2020. The 2021 testing was voluntary; about three-quarters of the students took the reading and math tests; fewer the other tests. So we must look back to 2019 to assess trends. The SOL and graduation data below are the 2022 minus 2019 numbers.

Prior to this year, the standard diploma required six “verified credits,” i.e., passing the end-of-course SOL in six passed courses (reading, writing, math, science, history & social science, and an elective). This year, the elective requirement was dropped. Thus, while the End-of-Course (EOC) assessment pass rates give a measure of success in meeting the requirements for a diploma, the ‘22 diploma rate is boosted in some degree.


With all that in place, here are the state data.

The reading numbers are anomalous and there is a reason: starting in 2020, VBOE relaxed the cut scores on the reading tests.

With that in mind, the pattern is clear: plummeting performance and inflated – in fact, mendacious — graduation rates.

Jim’s intuition was dead on.

Just because we can, here are some division results.

Even with all that “help” from the Virginia Board of Education, Richmond couldn’t manage to break even in graduating its Not ED students.

Let’s hope this next one means that Petersburg is starting to do something right, at least where it counts most: reading and, to a lesser degree, math.



Email if you’d like a copy of the spreadsheet.

John Butcher is a retired attorney living in the Richmond area. This column has been republished with permission from Cranky’s Blog.

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13 responses to “Graduation Inflation”

  1. And the grade inflation/equity grading will become a bigger problem [than it already is] in colleges over the coming years…. hiring managers — beware of new employees’ transcripts… actually talk to the prospective employee and ask them to write an essay about a topic of your choice in person, in front of you, in real time……. then you’ll understand.

  2. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
    James Wyatt Whitehead

    The ED category should be further subdivided into students who have cell phones and students who do not. That would be an interesting statistic.

    1. Stephen Haner Avatar
      Stephen Haner

      Really, are there any students who are not packing a device? I wouldn’t think many once you get to middle school.

      1. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
        James Wyatt Whitehead

        Most kids have one by age 12. The cost for a kid to have a phone is going to range from 300 to over a thousand dollars a year. Are you really ED if you have one?

        1. how_it_works Avatar

          I’ve never known anyone on the government cheese programs who DIDN’T have a cell phone. Of course, that’s adults.

      2. LarrytheG Avatar

        agree. I bet the number without cell phones is < 1%

  3. DJRippert Avatar

    Youngkin needs to clean house in Virginia’s education bureaucracy and he needs to use a shovel not a broom.

    While the Educrats are busy with CRT, transgender issues and defending the placement of near phonographic material in middle school libraries, they are systematically lowering the standards for real education in order to mask their abject failures.

    Time to throw the bums out.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      Yep. I’d like to see him do that also. Money where the mouth is.

      1. DJRippert Avatar

        I agree. Glenn has a lot of good ideas. Let’s see how many he can implement. Unfortunately, he appears to have moved far too easily and quickly from “outsider” to “professional politician”.

      2. DJRippert Avatar

        I agree. Glenn has a lot of good ideas. Let’s see how many he can implement. Unfortunately, he appears to have moved far too easily and quickly from “outsider” to “professional politician”.

  4. Kathleen Smith Avatar
    Kathleen Smith

    Lowering the cut score decreases the achievement gap between the have & have nots. Politically it looks good, but in the end, lower standards mean lower expectations. The gap then widens, yet again.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      Histograms and means are better than averages to get a more accurate picture.

      Public education works just fine for kids of parents who are college educated and economically secure.

      Public education for kids of poorly-educated and economically insecure parent(s) is less than wonderful.

      It’s pretty clear that many (not all) public education schools focus on the easier-to-teach and not so much with the ED kids.

      In schools (like Richmond and others) that have large percentages of ED kids, you’d think they would focus on that demographic and have some success. The results show they don’t.

      Can “Success” type “academies do a better job?

      I’m all for it as long as they have to take the problematic kids demographics AND they have to fully report their data just like public schools do.

  5. MisterChips Avatar

    There were never SOL tests for electives as most people know them (art, electronics, foreign language, etc.) The 6th verified credit was a student choice. You could, for example, pass the Algebra SOL earning your math verified credit and then pass the Geometry SOL as your 6th verified credit.

    Some of these metrics also give credit to students who earn a certificate of completion. You get that for passing the required classes but not earning the required SOL credits. That is generally pretty rare.

    There is a 3rd graduation metric called the GCI (Graduation Completion Index) which assigns weighted values based on diploma type. I believe you get 75 points for a GED vs 100 points for a diploma, 70 points for staying in school another year, and 25 for a certificate of completion

    I’m glad people are talking about this now. It’s harder to pin down but the real crime is the quality of the graduates, not the decreasing number of graduates. Some schools take a big graduation rate hit unfairly because of non-English speaking students. In many schools that’s the largest percentage of dropouts. A school that does a good job overall can suddenly look really bad if you get a large influx of English language learners. I’m all in for working with those children but they require a different program than a native English speaker.

    kls is spot on. I wouldn’t hire anyone based on a Virginia public school diploma without a basic writing and math test.

    Youngkin is definitely missing the boat at VDOE.

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