June 17, 2019

Graduation rates are up. Are our expectations?

By Kara Cisco

Last month, local media reported that four-year graduation rates in Minnesota were up. Not just up, but at an all-time high. Perhaps your social media pages looked like mine, with teachers, administrators, and local leaders celebrating the news. While more nuanced reports acknowledged that there are still significant gaps between various demographic groups, the primary focus of the narrative was that graduation rates are up, and as such, Minnesotans have much to celebrate.

But do we? Unfortunately, data shows that while we are graduating more students, we haven’t necessarily seen learning gains that point to an increased readiness to graduate.

Let’s dig into the data.

The Minnesota Department of Education publishes extensive data to shed light on trends in our schools. Between 2014 and 2018, Minnesota’s graduation rate rose from 81.4 percent to 83.2 percent. This difference represents 2,445 students—not an insignificant number. But when broken down by race, those numbers are far less laudable.

In 2014, 60.2 percent of African-American students graduated in four years. That number increased to only 67.4 percent in 2018. While few would argue against the incremental gains represented in these raw numbers, that so few of Minnesota’s black students are graduating in four years is appalling. More dismally, Native American graduation rates increased from a mere 48.2 percent to 51 percent, demonstrating a much slower growth rate than any other demographic.

Other data point to a more complex and insidious story. Tests such as the MCA-III and the ACT can’t ever provide a 360 view, but they are a useful metric to start the discussion. So let’s discuss.

In 2016, 60 percent of Minnesota’s high school students met or exceeded grade-level proficiency on the math MCA-III. In 2018, that number was 57.6 percent. Our statewide math scores declined significantly. Similarly, on the 2016 MCA-III reading test, 60.1 percent of high school students met or exceeded grade-level proficiency; in 2018, 60.3 percent of students met or exceeded proficiency, representing a mere .02 percent growth. In 2016, Minnesota’s mean composite ACT score was 21.1, while in 2018, the mean ACT score was 21.3. Again, not an insignificant gain, perhaps, but also not a gain that would point to a 2 percent increase in our graduation rate.

(As an additional measure of college- and career-readiness, consider the number of college students in Minnesota enrolled in remedial coursework or developmental education. While the overall number of students required to take remedial coursework in Minnesota has gone down, in some schools the number of graduates required to take post-secondary developmental coursework has gone up.

“I worry that we are teaching students how to “hoop jump” without giving them the skills they need to succeed.”

So what’s going on?

When I see the growth of our graduation rate juxtaposed with the stagnation and—in some cases—the decline of other statewide measures for academic achievement, I worry that we are teaching students how to “hoop jump” without giving them the skills they need to succeed.  It’s akin to pushing a broken van down the road. We’re moving forward, but losing precious opportunities to stop, assess the situation, and make the necessary repairs.

It’s time to fix the van.

Education researcher Carla Shalaby’s incredible book, “Troublemakers: Lessons in Freedom from Young Children at School,” follows the everyday lives of four students who are considered by their schools to be “troublemakers.” Shalaby questions the way we punish, push out, and under serve challenging students—who instead should be compelling us to transform the structures and systems of our educational institutions. The “troublemakers,” Shalaby argues, are the canaries in the coal mine.

And so, too, are our students who struggle to graduate in four years. The students who resist and push back are the students from whom we can learn the most. These students are telling us, “the way you are teaching us isn’t working for me, and I need you to try something different.” Instead of addressing their needs, we are finding ways to shuffle them through a broken system.

“We think that what we are doing is helping. We collectively cheer when we see a 2 percent increase in graduation rates without considering whether lowered expectations led us to this outcome.”

And that is perhaps the most insidious aspect of the data. We think that what we are doing is helping. We collectively cheer when we see a 2 percent increase in graduation rates without considering whether lowered expectations led us to this outcome. We allow ourselves to be lulled into a sense of achievement.

My hope is that one day we are able to correlate a similar increase in graduation rates with comparable increases in statewide test outcomes, ACT results, and success in college and career, along with the many other metrics—both qualitative and quantitative—that teachers use to demonstrate tangible learning outcomes for all students every day. To achieve this, it will require meaningful analysis of existing systems, as well as a willingness to be experimental and brave. That work is our burden to bear.

This month, I had the immense privilege of witnessing 300 of my students walk across the stage to receive their diplomas. There is no greater pleasure for a teacher, and even the systemic flaws our schools face cannot invalidate the effort of my students. The work my students have put into that achievement is undeniable, but it is work that was done in a broken system. It is work that was done within a system more concerned with diplomas than the learning that goes on behind it.

This call to action is written to us, not them.