High school graduation rates have traditionally been a barometer of student success, as well as a measure of the quality of school systems. The members of California’s education establishment have been high-fiving each other over the state’s on-time high school graduation rate reaching 83.2 percent in 2016.
But a peak behind the curtain reveals some extremely unsettling information. Not only does the rate ignore the 3 percent of children who drop out before starting 9th grade, but the improvement in the graduation rate is fueled by the collapse of academic standards.
In October, 2017, we officially said good-by to the California High School Exit Examination, which the state legislature eliminated in 2015 because too many kids couldn’t pass it. The English–language component of the test addressed state content standards through tenth grade, and the math part of the exam covered state standards in only grades six and seven and Algebra I. Worse, the legislators chose to give diplomas retroactively, going back to 2006, when the test was first initiated, to students who had passed their coursework but failed the tes
Some cities have used their own methods to lower standards. In 2015, the Los Angeles school board decided to roll back graduation requirements by allowing students to pass classes required for college entrance with a grade of a “D” instead of a “C.” And in Los Angeles and elsewhere, students who are not on track to graduate from high school can now take “credit recovery” classes — many of which are devoid of any meaningful content. As a result, the grad rate in L.A. zoomed from a projected 54 to 77 percent within a few months in 2016. Is it any wonder that three quarters of California Community College students and over 40 percent of Cal State school students need remedial classes?
Now we have a report “Strengthening America’s Educational Safety Net” by Carl Brodt and Alan Bonsteel of California Parents for Educational Choice. The authors estimate that each school year 10 percent of high school students — some 1.5 million nationally — enter a corrective or supplemental program to help them overcome challenges that cannot be met in a regular classroom setting.
Of that 1.5 million, about 300,000 are in California. Most of these students are at risk of not graduating because they lack sufficient course credits. The others are habitually truant from instruction, irregular in attendance, insubordinate, disorderly while in attendance, expelled, pregnant or parenting, incarcerated, or on parole or probation.
Programs for these students bear names like continuation schools, community schools, and opportunity schools, and include educational offerings in prisons, jails, and juvenile detention centers as well as comprehensive high schools. Despite local and state governments devoting considerable resources to these programs, only about 25 percent of the students enrolled in them earn a high school degree, and because the programs typically emphasize process (attendance and following instructions, for example) rather than academics, virtually none of the graduates acquire the learning typically expected of high school graduates.
But how best to improve the graduation experience and the lives of these at-risk students? Besides standardizing data and defining requirements for graduation, Brodt and Bonsteel suggest giving parents more choices — vouchers, educational savings accounts, tax credit scholarships — to increase the probability of students buying into the educational process and working to gain the knowledge required to graduate.
Studies have shown that parental choice works. The authors cite a study by Patrick Wolf of the University of Arkansas and his colleagues, who examined the Washington, D.C. school voucher program aimed at helping poor and minority families. They found voucher students were 21 percent more likely to graduate high school, and declared the program was “one of the most effective urban dropout prevention programs yet witnessed.”
Business-as-usual is failing for at-risk kids. For their sake, their families and society’s, we must do something better. Brodt and Bonsteel’s report points the way. As we celebrate National School Choice Week, this is a perfect time to get to work.
Larry Sand, a retired teacher, is president of the California Teachers Empowerment Network.
(This article first appeared in the Orange County Register on Jan. 21, 2018.)