From 2014 to 2015, Douglas County Schools saw a sharp increase in graduation rates: it rose from 75.6% to 88.2%, a remarkable 12.6% increase. The 2015 rate is one of the highest in the state of Georgia, and exceeds many neighboring systems with better reputations like Cobb and Gwinnett. Naturally, these gains were widely hailed by the system, and even earned an official commendation from the State Senate.
It is noteworthy that this was the first year in recent history that there were no graduation requirements for the state of Georgia independent of the local school system. This means that graduation depends entirely on credits awarded by the system, and thus are based solely on course grades. Thus, rates went up throughout Georgia, but in Douglas County they went up more. Since graduation is now only based on course credits granted by the high schools, school systems can attain a higher graduation rate simply by lowering the standards required to attain credit. An analysis of more objective indicators of student achievement suggest that this is how the graduation rate in Douglas County has increased so sharply.
If graduation rates were a valid indicator of student achievement and success, one would expect that high graduation rates would be correlated with high levels of student achievement. So what do we see in more independent, objective metrics of student achievement? Consider these achievement statistics*, first for the whole system, then for the four high schools that saw significant graduation rate increases in 2015.
For the entire school system in 2015:
- 78% of AP students (1385 out of 1776 test-takers) failed their AP exams.
- 46% of AP student made a 1 – the lowest possible score.
- The mode score on AP exams was a 1 at 4 of 5 high schools.
- The proficiency rate in Math was 19% according to state exams.
- The failure rate on state Science exams was ~43%.
- The proficiency rate was less than 31% in 6 of 8 subject areas tested by state exams, and less than 50% in all subject areas.
Lithia Springs High’s graduation rate increased by 24.8% to 88.7%. Yet that same year:
- ~90% of AP students failed their AP exams (63% scored a 1 – the lowest possible score)
- The mode score on AP exams was a 1 in 12 of 13 subjects
- The proficiency rate in Math was only ~13%
- The failure rate on state Science exams was ~48%
New Manchester High’s graduation rate increased by 13.7% to 89.3%. Yet that same year:
- ~85% of AP students failed their AP exams (52% scored a 1 – the lowest possible score)
- The mode score on AP exams was a 1 in 6 of 10 subjects
- The proficiency rate in Math was only ~8%
- The failure rate on state Science exams was ~47%
Douglas County High’s graduation rate increased by 11.9% to 87%. Yet that same year:
- ~80% of AP students failed their AP exams (46% scored a 1 – the lowest possible score)
- The mode score on AP exams was a 1 in 11 of 12 subjects
- The proficiency rate in Math was only ~26%
- The failure rate on state Science exams was ~45%
- The failure rate of special education students on state exams was over 80% in 7 of 8 subject areas (increases in graduation rates of students with disabilities is one reason the overall graduation rates increased).
- ~72% of students who finished an online e2020 course failed state exams, while 100% passed the course and over 90% made an A or B in the course.
Chapel Hill High’s graduation rate increased by 9.8% to 89.6%. Yet that same year:
- ~74%% of AP students failed their AP exams (45% scored a 1 – the lowest possible score)
- The mode score on AP exams was a 1 in 8 of 13 subjects
- The proficiency rate in Math was only ~31%
- The failure rate on state Science exams was ~40%
If the graduation rate increases were valid, and our system was truly graduating more students who meet the same academic standards as school districts with lower graduation rates, one would expect Douglas County students to outperform their peers in counties with lower graduation rates on independent metrics of achievement. But this is not the case. Consider three such key metrics.
College and Career Readiness Performance Index (CCRPI) –
A high school diploma is supposed to represent that a student is adequately prepared for college or for a career. Hence, the main metric by which schools are rated is about college and career readiness. The CCRPI is a much more comprehensive indicator of school performance than graduation rate, and it includes a number of independent metrics of student achievement. If graduation rate correlates with student achievement, then one would predict Douglas County schools to have a higher CCRPI than counties it exceeds in graduation rate, but this is not the case. While Douglas County’s index in 2014 (most recent available at time of writing) is comparable to the state average, it is less than other major systems in the Atlanta area (many of which have a lower graduation rate):
Douglas – 68.9
Carroll – 71.7
Cobb – 77.1
Coweta – 70.7
Fulton – 73.4
Gwinnett – 73.2
CCRPI scores for 2015 have since been released. However, significant changes were made by the DOE to how the scores were calculated. Therefore, the scores are not comparable to the 2014 scores. It is unclear how reliable the new method for calculating scores is since the way “Progress Points” are calculated is quite complicated and appears to not accurately rank schools that were high performing the previous year.
Georgia Milestones/EOCs –
High school students have to take standardized state exams in eight subject areas. Douglas County had a higher failure rate (and lower proficiency rate) than the state as a whole in 6 out of 8 subject areas in 2015.
Students with Disabilities –
The district attributed its overall graduation rate increase, in large part, to a significant increase in the graduation rate of students with disabilities (SWD). The SWD graduation rate doubled from 35% in 2014 (same as the state) to 70% in 2015 (significantly higher than the state). Does this increase mean that Douglas County special needs students are achieving more academically? Test score data indicates that they are not. Douglas County SWDs performed below the state proficiency rates on EOCs in 7 of 8 subject areas. In four of these subject areas, the proficiency rates were ten or more percentage points below the state.
Advanced Placement Exams –
AP courses are college-level courses by which students can earn college credit by scoring well on a standardized exam created and scored by the College Board. Success on the AP exam is considered by colleges to be a significant indicator of college readiness.
In 2015, only 1 out of 56 courses in the county (covering 14 different subject areas offered at multiple high schools, e.g. Biology, Calculus, U.S. History, etc.) had an AP exam average that was equal to the state average. 48 out of 56 courses had exam averages that were at least 10% lower than state averages.
SAT and ACT Scores –
The mean SAT score for the system was 1358 (compared with 1450 for the state and 1490 nationally). Compare this with neighboring counties:
Cobb – 1516
Fulton – 1558
Paulding – 1386
Coweta – 1496
Carroll – 1386
The mean ACT score for the system was 19.5 (compared with 21.0 for the state and nationally)
Altogether this data shows lower achievement compared with the state and neighboring counties. Perhaps the high graduation rate in Douglas County shows that the system merely succeeds at getting students through a system more efficiently and with lower standards.
This is especially apparent in the online credit recovery program, called E2020. At significant percentage (perhaps at least 25% or more) of DCSS graduates in 2015 received credit for required courses through E2020, a program that does not even meet the NCAAs requirements for high school credits, because students do not have access to a certified instructor in the content area of their course and because the course is not comparable in rigor to equivalent traditional courses. This program may be the single biggest driver of increased graduation rates in the county (it was cited on the State Senate commendation as one of the reasons for the increases under the euphemism “personalized learning”).
There are good reasons to doubt the validity of this program and thus the legitimacy of the credits received. Legitimacy concerns with the program have been investigated by the county, and plans for changes are being implemented.
Additional Data Sought –
- Special education EOC scores from all high schools.
- EOC scores from all E2020 students who took an EOC course.
*All EOC, SAT, and ACT data were obtained from publically searchable databases, except for EOC scores for special ed. and e2020 students, which were obtained from internal documents. All AP data were obtained from a single internal document.