Are our Disadvantaged Students Really Learning? – an Analysis of the 2017 US News High School Rankings

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The latest US News & World Report High School Rankings (2017) indicate that disadvantaged populations of students are underperforming in Douglas County, and that high graduation rates have been achieved in large part by expedient means of moving such students through the system. This post will explain briefly the ranking’s methodology and then analyze some of the data to support this conclusion.

Only 1 of 5 high schools – Douglas County High – qualified for a ranking. To qualify for the lowest ranking – “Bronze” – schools must meet two criteria. First, their students as a whole must perform better on reading and math exams, administered by the state, than what is statistically expected based on the school’s poverty level (typically measured by the % of the student body on free and reduced lunch).  Second, the “disadvantaged” student groups (includes African-American, Hispanic, and poor students) must perform better than the state average for those populations.

To qualify for “Silver” or “Gold” ratings, there is an additional criteria: schools must exceed the median College Readiness Index (CRI). The CRI is comprised of both AP participation (how many students take an AP exam) and AP performance (how many students pass an AP exam). AP exams are used since these are college level exams through which students can earn college credit by passing.

To understand why 4 of 5 high schools did not qualify for a ranking, let’s look at Alexander High School as a case study (AHS consistently has the top CCRPI score in the district). In reading and math, Alexander students underperformed statistical expectations, having a gap score of negative 18 (a negative score means the actual performance was lower than expectations). Also, its disadvantaged populations scored 8.9 percentage points below the averages for disadvantage students throughout the state (only 12.7% of disadvantaged students were proficient in reading and math).

To understand why Douglas County High School earned a Bronze but not a Silver or Gold, let’s look at its statistics. Its gap score was positive 6.8, and its disadvantaged populations scored 6.5 percentage points above the state average. Thus, the first two criteria were met. Given the fact that its students with disabilities reading and math scores were on par or worse than the district as a whole, it is reasonable to assume that these test scores were boosted by the school’s population of International Baccalaureate students (at least 25% of test takers), which sees significant participation from African-American students.

DCHS did not qualify for Silver, though, because of low performance on AP exams. Even though the participation rate was fairly high (39%), the passing rate on all exams was only 17%, with 28% of seniors passing at least one exam (this is higher than 17% because it only requires one passed exam and excludes multiple failed exams). It is worth noting that in years past, DCHS ranked higher (recall the top 10% ranking?) because the rankings used IB exams instead of AP.

How does this relate to the high graduation rate spike in 2015? These latest rankings use 2015 academic data.  The fact that disadvantaged students are performing less than their peers while graduating at higher rates indicates clearly that the standards for graduation were lower. The high participation of disadvantaged students in the county’s suspect online credit recovery program, e2020, further supports this conclusion.

Stopping for the School Bus: A Cautionary Tale

passing a school bus

In February, a member of the Douglas County Board of Education received a ticket for illegally passing a school bus, which was stopped, lights flashing, to either drop off or pick up children (Douglas County Sentinel, March 19th 2017). The BoE member, through his lawyer, expressed regret, saying that the misdemeanor crime was committed “inadvertently.” Given that the road on which this happened has four lanes with a turn lane, I think he deserves the benefit of the doubt; I can see this happening to the best of us. But this incident is pregnant with deeper meaning. I hope our school system’s leaders will recognize the symbolic significance of this event and learn from it.

Why is passing a stopped school bus not only illegal but wrong? Negligent drivers risk the well-being of students coming off a bus in their haste to reach a particular destination. We recognize instinctively that the few seconds that the driver saves on his commute time are not even comparable to the risk of putting children’s safety in danger. When a driver does this, we are rightly aghast that he would judge this risk to be worth a few seconds of his time. The crime is especially galling when committed by someone whose public duty is to ensure that our children’s well-being is the top priority of the school system.

Knowing why this behavior is wrong allows us to see in it a poignant analogy for other wrongs in the school system.  On its way to reach such worthy destinations as high graduation rates and increased participation in AP courses, the school system has risked the well-being of our children by pursuing them in a hasty, careless manner. Serious long-term risks to our children’s futures have been taken for the sake of short-term benefits to the adult drivers.

These goals have been achieved by expedient methods such as as cheating in online credit recovery courses and aggressively recruiting students who are not yet proficient in high school level work into what are supposed to be college-level courses (AP). The result of this careless haste is to weaken the integrity and thus value of a high school diploma, and to impede achievement in AP courses by lowering academic standards to accommodate unprepared students. Consequently, many graduates are ill-prepared to succeed in college or lack the job skills needed for a productive career.

I don’t believe that the BoE member in this case consciously thought, “I don’t care about these children; I just want to get to where I am going as fast as possible.” This wasn’t an act of malice; it was an act of neglect. Similarly, our school system’s leaders are not callous towards children’s well-being, but there has been negligence in considering carefully the long-term consequences of their means and methods. The ends of high graduation rates and high participation on AP courses do not justify the means of attaining them.

Our school system needs to slow down and pay more attention to how the shortcuts they have taken to reach these goals are putting our children’s futures at risk. 

How are our Students with Disabilities Really Doing Academically?

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The astounding district graduation rate increase of 13% from 2014 (75%) to 2015 (88%) was attributed in part to gains in the graduation rate of students with disabilities (SWDs). The SWD graduation rate in Douglas County doubled from 35% in 2014 to 70% in 2015 (compared to an increase from 36 to 54% in Georgia over the same time period)*. How was this dramatic increase attained? Was it a result of significant increases in the academic achievement of these special needs students? Does Douglas County have a higher SWD graduation rate because its students are learning more?

A comparison on End of Course exam proficiency data between SWDs in Douglas County and the state of Georgia provides some clues^:

In 7 of 8 subject areas, Douglas County’s SWDs achieved less than their peers throughout the state, indicating lower standards and expectations for this population.

One might counter in the one exam seniors take, Economics,  DC students did better. This is true and it may account partly for why the SWD graduation rate was better than the state’s. However, in 2016 the graduation rate was still much higher (65 compared to 56%), yet DC students did worse on all 8 exams that year, including Economics. And the 2016 graduates would have taken the American Literature and US History exams as juniors in 2015. With a proficiency rate of 15%, the American Literature scores certainly raise questions about the quality of the education these students are receiving.

So how can the graduation rate of this population be so high while academic achievement is so low? The likely answer that very little learning is required of students to earn credits and thus progress through the system and graduate. I saw this firsthand last year when I taught high school classes that included students with disabilities. Quite frankly, these students had been conditioned by years of low expectations. For example, all of them were allowed “test corrections for points.” This means that after taking a multiple choice test, they were shown which ones they got wrong and allowed to change their answers and get their tests re-graded. It was not uncommon for test grades to rise from Fs to Bs or As as a result. I found this problematic because in most cases I knew that the students were not really learning at this level. Rather, this practice allowed them to increase their grade mostly by guessing. In addition, they commonly received and so expected “study guides” that gave them the test questions and answered ahead of time.

Having grown accustomed to such crutches, most did not know how to really prepare for tests because they didn’t have to. And since such practices were not allowed on their final, standardized exams (because that would invalidate the results!), most could not succeed on them.

Such low expectations indicate a low view of these students capabilities and even value as persons. An experience I had in a teacher planning meeting illustrates this vividly. We were trying to set academic achievement goals for our students for the year. The previous year, the SWD passing rate on a particular science exam was only 7%. We had to set a target for increasing it. The faculty decided on an increase to 8%. Yet, as I objected, since there were only about 40 SWDs enrolled in the course this year, an increase of one percentage point did not even represent one more whole student passing the course! (7% to 8% of 40 is an increase of 2.8 to 3.2, or 0.4 students). In other words, only 1 more student had passed the exam, the passing rate would have increased by more than 1 percentage point.

This raises an essential question about the primary goal of special education: should standards be lowered for them in order to make it easier for them to progress through the system? Or should they be expected to really learn and given effective supports to overcome their disability to do so?

*All data obtained from the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement – https://gosa.georgia.gov/downloadable-data.
^Proficiency rates here are weighted averages using different multipliers for different levels of performance on exams.

Graduation Rates Compared to Matriculation and Remediation Rates in College

graduation

Using recently obtained data from the Georgia Department of Education, we calculated the percentage of 2015 Douglas County graduates who matriculated in a public college and of those who matriculated, the percentage who needed to take at least one remedial course. We compared these figures to the state and to all the surrounding counties.

Notice the contrast between Douglas County’s graduation rate (the highest) and the percentage of students who did not go to college after graduating or who needed remediation (also the highest!). In spite of a 88% graduation rate, 68% of graduates either did not enroll in college or needed to take a high school level course in college because they didn’t really learn it in high school. This may be the strongest evidence yet that the high graduation rate was obtained by the systemic lowering of academic standards throughout the district. Even though students graduate with a “college prep” diploma, there is NO evidence that Douglas County graduates are better prepared for college. Rather, the evidence indicates that they are LESS prepared for college.

Please note that this data does not account for the small numbers of students who enroll in a private or out-of-state college. This data is not available. 

All data was obtained either through an open records request or directly from http://www.gadoe.org.

 

High Graduation Rates: An Illusion of Success?

illusions

The graduation rates for 2016 were released this week. While Douglas County’s rates dipped slightly from 2015 (88.5 to 87.1%), it still surpasses the state average significantly (79.2%) and remains higher than all surrounding districts. Since graduation standards are now completely established internally by the local district, one should critically examine whether or not higher rates are simply due to a district lowering its standards required for graduation.

Douglas County high schools have relied heavily on online credit recovery (OCR) courses to attain and maintain their high graduation rates. The sharp increase in 2015 was attributed by the district to “personalized learning programs,” which is a euphemism for OCR courses (this was one of the reasons given in the GA State Senate commendation the district received for the increases). Hundreds of DCSS graduates each year receive graduation credits from these courses.

senate-commendation

Yet, as an Atlanta Journal Constitution investigative report has shown, students learn very little in these courses (as indicated by proficiency rates on standardized tests). Proficiency rates statewide are around 10% while the failure rate is above 50%. In a sample of over 200 online students in Douglas County, the failure rate was over 70% in 2015.

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Earning a high school diploma is supposed to mean that a student is college ready. Perhaps a better metric of student achievement then is how graduates perform in college. According to data on the state DoE website, 37% of DCSS graduates enrolled in a public college or university in Georgia had to take at least one remedial class, and this number increased from the previous year. Compare this to a 25% rate across the state (which is still a problem!).

Our graduation rate is higher than the state average, yet more of our students have to take remedial classes in college.  How can this be?

 

 

A Response to a Defense of Online Credit Recovery

A few weeks ago, at the August 15th Board of Education meeting, I submitted a nearly 20 page report documenting problems with the online credit recovery program, e2020. The main reason I felt compelled to do this is that this program has been the major driver behind dramatic graduation rate increases, yet allows students to earn credits without really having to learn. So with the report, I made a public statement, calling for transparency and accountability. At the next BoE meeting, the school system issued a response to my claims. The response was incoherent in places, and filled with misleading hyperbole (the program is “the best in the state, if not the country”), downright deceptive claims (it was “setup to maximize learning”), and even personal attacks (that I was criticizing the program to “cause hurt to others”).  The local paper reported both on my initial questions and on the system’s response.

Exercising my blood-bought liberties of free speech and of a free press, I wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper.  I am grateful that they published it:

Dear editor,
I would like to recommend a few questions to the community to ask our school system in response to the claims that were made in defense of their online credit recovery program (e2020). One claim was that e2020 is setup to “maximize learning.” What is the evidence that most students are learning at high levels, if at all, in these courses? Another claim was that the program has contributed to graduation rate increases, but is not the only factor. Exactly what percentage of graduates have been earning these credits in recent years? And if the program really is “the best in the state, if not the nation,” why downplay the significance of its contribution? Instead, why not broadcast loudly and invite the nation to look at how this program helped create a quasi educational miracle in 2015? (Interestingly, I was told by an administrator in private that they were “thinking about scrapping e2020 altogether” – why even consider this? And why are they exploring new vendors?) Finally, the issues I raised were valid enough to be “investigated and acted upon when deemed necessary.” If so then, what were these issues that demanded action, and why would a top notch program warrant such significant changes?

Facts and evidence were conspicuously missing from this public statement. I had submitted to the board a lengthy document of evidence about problems and abuses in e2020, including, but not limited to, very low test scores (6% proficiency on state exams; and a 7-8th grade reading level, on average) in contrast with very high course grades (over 90% of the same sample making As or Bs); specific ways students were regularly using the Internet to cheat on tests; how students were allowed to change incorrect answers before submitting tests; and how some took fast track courses whereby full-year courses were completed in a few weeks or even days so that they could graduate on time.

Instead of trying to discredit critics by attacking motives (how is that relevant to whether students are learning in e2020?), I would hope the leadership would instead refute claims by focusing on the facts and constructing their own fact-based arguments. As one senior administrator told me, “If there is a problem, there is a problem.” What is needed is transparency about the problem so that there can be public accountability for solving it, for our children’s sake.

Jeremy Noonan