Educating for Democracy: Scamming High School Graduation Rates

In a recent New York Times article (12/27/2015) it was reported that there seemed to be a serious discrepancy between national high school graduation rates and student competence in doing college level work.

The most recent evaluation of 12th graders on a national test of reading and math found that fewer than 40 percent were ready for college. College remediation and dropout rates remain stubbornly high, particularly at two-year institutions, where . fewer than a third who enroll complete a degree even within three years.This despite the statistic that graduation rates from high school at over 80% are the highest they've ever been.

This discrepancy should not be at all surprising since part of the No Child Left Behind law has stressed graduation rates as part of its requirement for federal funds. First of all not every child is capable of doing the work necessary to earn a high school diploma because of learning disabilities.

"1 in 5 students or approximately 15-20% of the population have a language based learning disability and dyslexia is the most common of these disabilities." This disability can in some cases be ameliorated but that requires early detection and often there is not sufficient staffing.

A second major factor that would leave many young learners unprepared to do college-level work is when they find it difficult in concentrating in a classroom setting. About 11 percent of school-age children in the United States -- and 19 percent of high-school-age boys -- have been diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

"The figures show that about 6.4 million children aged 4 to 17 have been diagnosed with ADHD at some point in their lives, a 16 percent rise since 2007 and a 53 percent increase over the past decade." m not asserting that some of these students can't overcome their learning problems, but it is certainly more difficult for them.

Moreover, there are also many opportunities for educators who, faced with the possibility that their schools might be penalized and even closed if they don't "get the numbers up," find ways to falsify their scores if they aren't improving. The scandal in the Atlanta School district several years ago where extensive cheating was found on standardized tests is a case in point. According to a watchdog organization, The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, cheating on standardized tests were found in 37 states when they did an investigation two years ago. Is it likely that this trend has abated?

One can hope that the new law-the Every Student Succeeds Act-- recently passed in Congress that has less emphasis on tests might reduce cheating. I am skeptical of its results since the fundamental flaw in standardized testing which will continue in the new act is the reliance on numbers to determine educational progress, numbers that can be easily manipulated.

But even without any overt cheating, there are "legitimate" ways in which graduation rates in high schools can be increased which have little to do with improvements in learning. One recourse educators have of upping the graduation rates is through a program called "credit recovery." It enables students who have failed a course necessary for graduation to "recover" credit by taking a mini-course which pretends that it requires the same amount of time and effort as a full semester course. Having been an educator for over fifty years, I have serious doubts that this "make up" program has much validity. To compound its dubiousness, it is often conducted on line, the least effective way of educating a student who would need one-on-one contact with a teacher to have a real chance of earning the credits. In fact, while on-line credit recovery is growing in demand in American high schools, questions about its usefulness in improving student learning are being increasingly raised.

According to an article in Education Week written more than four years ago: "'The surge of interest in online credit-recovery programs has also come despite scant research on the programs' effectiveness. While studies have been conducted on online learning in general, they haven't been conducted on the effectiveness of online learning specifically for the use of credit recovery, researchers say.

"We're interested in comparing so-called high-quality online courses for credit recovery with taking a traditional class," said Jessica B. Heppen, a senior research analyst for the Washington-based American Institutes for Research. "There are definitely holes in the research in K-12 [education]."

Russell W. Rumberger, an education professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara,was quoted as observing: "I question the effectiveness of these programs . . . "but without data, it is hard to know."

Despite these serious reservations, big-city districts are expanding the use of online learning for credit recovery. Since the date of this article, several years ago, on-line credit recovery demand has considerably increased. I can only speculate on the effectiveness of such courses since there seems to be little attempt to gather the necessary data to see their effect. I would also venture that those educators who are extensively using on-line credits as a substitute for classroom instruction don't want to know their effect.What appears to me to be obvious from these reports is that many of the high schools in this country seem to be focused on getting students to graduate rather than trying to educate them.

Last June NPR conducted an investigation of the way in which students were able to graduate without really fulfilling the requirements for a high school diploma. One of the methods--predictably-- was credit recovery which is being used in 90% of school districts throughout the country according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The NPR report included such tactics as "mislabeling" students so poor learners would not be included in the graduation statistics and "dumbed down" requirements so that more students would graduate.

Another "legitimate" method of boosting high school graduation rate not mentioned in the NPR articles is a more arcane device called "cut scores." This is a method in which a below-passing score on a test can be "statistically" re-evaluated in order to make the score "passable." A colleague of mine who graded math tests for the NYC school system confidentially told me that the "cut score" for passing in math was 26%! I would hope that someone in the Department of Education would investigate this matter.

Therefore, for me there is no 'mystery" about the discrepancy between the increase in high school graduation rates and decrease in college-level competence. Continued pressure on teachers to "bring up" the numbers on their students' test scores or suffer the consequences; continued pressure on principles and school superintendents to "bring up" the graduation rate at their schools; continued pressure by politicians who demonize teachers for poor student performance when the main obstacle to effective learning is poverty: all of these pressures make the American education system increasingly a fraud.

The American public must finally realize that one of the signs of an unhealthy society begins with children who are born with serious obstacles to learning and already have demonstrated deficiencies in their ability to learn even before entering pre-school or kindergarten. In a comparison of families from different socio-economic backgrounds, it was discovered that there is a thirty million word discrepancy in words that a young child from a privileged background will hear compared to less fortunate children. The effect of this difference can have a profound impact on how well children learn.

Instead of pretending that genuine learning can be obtained with testing, educators must put their own pressure on the policy makers to address issues in learning where learning begins: in pre-school environments. As a recent study on children's brain development asserts:

The first 3 years of life, when the brain is developing and maturing, is the most intensive period for acquiring speech and language skills. These skills develop best in a world that is rich with sounds, sights, and consistent exposure to the speech and language of others.
There appear to be critical periods for speech and language development in infants and young children when the brain is best able to absorb language. If these critical periods are allowed to pass without exposure to language, it will be more difficult to learn.

As I have observed in the past , the most critical period in children's learning ability occurs BEFORE they even attend pre-school. The negative effects of inadequate nurturing in this crucial period can be seen decades later in the poor performance by many college students who do not have the capacity to learn easily. They lack the concentration, motivation and persistence to really understand what they are learning, They are unable to retain a significant part of the content of the courses they take and know how to apply what they have learned. Most significantly, they do not know how to innovate, and become creative in using this knowledge. In a culture that substitutes instant gratification for serious thinking, it's no wonder that so many students cannot, and in many cases, will not want to learn enough so they can be truly educated. We can pretend through test scores and graduation rates that our students' learning abilities are improving, but their poor performance in college proves otherwise.