I’m just kidding; there is no graduation rate debate. But there should be.
On Thursday, January 30, 2014, President Obama visited McGavock High School in Nashville, Tenn. In his speech, he praised McGavock and the Metropolitan Nashville Public School system, or MNPS, for the improvement in graduation rates. What he can’t commend them for is the school’s or district’s ACT scores or the college matriculation rate of its graduates. The average ACT score for the district hovers around an 18. The minimum ACT score for the Hope Scholarship, Tennessee’s lottery scholarship, is a 21. The graduates of MNPS are not ready for college, and if they manage to be accepted they are looking at years of remedial courses.
So, if their graduation rates are steadily increasing, why are their national college entrance exams stagnant? The real answer is that the graduation rates are fabricated. The graduation rate is the only statistic under complete control of the district. If they are going to be measured by a graduation rate, then why wouldn’t they just graduate everyone? And that is exactly what they are doing. If they can manage to get a student to show up for some portion of each of the four years, that student will graduate, and no lack of knowledge or ability will keep that student from graduating. Teachers and their antiquated grading system be damned! As I mentioned in a previous post, now teachers will give no grade lower than a 50 for any student on any assignment, regardless of whether or not the student even attempted the assignment. So, a student gets a minimum of a 50 just for showing up, well, actually, he or she doesn’t even have to do that.
MNPS is one of the districts following this aforementioned grading system. Local education writer, Andrea Zelinski, wrote about the new district-wide mandate in August 2013, but many teachers have been following a similar structure for years. One teacher with whom I spoke last week was frustrated by how his gradebook has become worthless. He said he carefully developed a system through which he would code student grades in order to communicate to himself, students, and parents to what degree the grade was earned. He assigned a 50 to grades that were given with no attempts (i.e. student did not complete or even attempt the assignment). He assigned a 51 to incomplete assignments. He assigned a 52 to assignments on which the student completed the assignment fully but mastered fewer than 50% of the measured standards. That way, he would be able to see whether or not the student needed reteaching or other interventions. Apparently, this system was not approved because they had been instructed to give 50’s and not 51’s and 52’s. The grades in his gradebook have been rendered meaningless.
In MNPS, teachers are being forced to pass students who should not be passing. In their system, at any given point, a teacher should not have more than a 10% failure rate. Unfortunately, more than 50% of their students are failing standardized tests. By that measure, teachers should, on average, have a 50% or higher failure rate. The students at MNPS should not be graduating; they should not even be passing classes. Instead, they are graduating with a tremendous lack of knowledge and skills and a meaningless participation certificate that should say, “I was passed along by my teachers,” but instead reads, “Diploma.”
We need to stop measuring schools by graduation rates, or we need to ensure that graduation rates mean something by instituting a high school exit exam. But hey, at least the unfortunate, underserved students of McGavock High School got to see the president of the United States. I hope they can look back on that fondly as they serve french fries through a drive-thru window.