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Are kids getting shortchanged by easier-to-earn diplomas?

June 9, 2015 at 6:20 PM EDT
While high school graduation rates have climbed steadily the last decade to an all-time high, a new investigation by NPR finds reasons to question the increases. Federal data show 81 percent of students finish, but the value of a high school diploma can vary widely depending on the state and the student’s path. William Brangham learns more from Anya Kamenetz, lead education blogger for NPR.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: High school seniors are graduating across the country this month. Federal officials laud the fact that graduation rates have climbed steadily through the last decade.

But new reporting calls into question whether those numbers are rising for all the right reasons.

William Brangham brings us the details.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: High school graduation rates are at an all-time high. Federal data show 81 percent of students finish, and finish on time.

But a new investigation by NPR finds reasons to question that number. Their reporting found that the value of a high school diploma can vary widely between, and even within, states. In just nine states and the District of Columbia, students must complete required classes to be considered “college-ready” and to earn a diploma. Twenty-three states allow students to opt in, or out, of a more rigorous path to graduation.

That leaves 18 states with requirements below what experts say students need for their next step in life.

NPR’s Anya Kamenetz has been working on the series and joins me now.

Anya, let’s talk initially about this 81 percent graduation rate number. You say in your reporting that we should take that number with a big grain of salt. Why?

ANYA KAMENETZ, Lead Education Blogger, NPR: Well, that’s exactly what researchers are saying too.

And the reason is that other indicators such as the NAEP, the Nation’s Report Card, remediation rate at colleges, and even SAT and ACT scores, those are all flat. So the fact that we have seen a 10-point gain or so in the last decade in the high school graduation rate really should be giving us pause.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So, you said one of the things that you reported on was districts are doing what’s calling moving kids off the books. What is that and why are they doing it?

ANYA KAMENETZ: Right.

So, the graduation rate, if you think about it, the numerator of that number is simply the number of kids who get a diploma in a given year. But when you get at the denominator, you’re tracking kids from ninth grade through 12th grade and you’re tracking those who drop out along the way.

And there are many ways that a district, a school or even a state can play a few games with that number. And so some examples that we found, you know, in Texas, there are many, many different lever codes that a school can use to say that a kid, for example, is getting homeschooled or that they left the country, go back to Mexico, and many of these codes do not require a lot of documentation.

So we find that Texas, in fact, is backing out thousands and thousands of students out of the denominator, and not really accounting for where they go.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Why would the school districts wants to do this? Why are they trying to tweak the numbers here?

ANYA KAMENETZ: Well, you know, there are a couple of different reasons for that.

No Child Left Behind, of course, put federal accountability measures behind the graduation rates. States have to set targets and they’re liable to lose some funding if they don’t. And, at the same time, you know, we simply have better data ability.

So, states got together in 2005. They agreed on a common measure of the graduation rate. And so the ability to track students has gotten much more advanced because of database technologies. So for all of these reasons, technical reasons, as well as policy reasons, there’s so much more pressure to deliver those numbers.

And, unfortunately, you know, the hard work of raising graduation rates really takes time. And so that’s why you see states tempted to go for some of these quick fixes.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Your reporting also detailed some very innovative and long-term strategies that different school districts have used. Can you explain some of those? Tell me about them.

ANYA KAMENETZ: Right.

So I want to highlight that we worked in collaboration with 14 member stations across the country and had them kind of bring us what was happening in their cities and their states. And so some of the strategies that we looked at involved intervening early on. We’re seeing across the country that states are expanding access to universal pre-K, because of the research that shows that that can impact high school graduation down the line.

And then you have a state like Georgia, which created a statewide graduation coach system. They’re no longer funding that statewide, but some cities are still keeping it up. And some states and cities are identifying, you know, people in third or fourth grade. In D.C., which has been working hard to raise its graduation rates — they have the worst graduation rates in the country when you look at states.

And one of the schools that one of our reporters visited, about a third of the students are homeless there, and so they’re just really working on offering all kinds of wrap-around services to help those kids really escape the statistics.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: You mentioned in your reporting that some districts are making it easier for kids to get a diploma. Now, on the face of that, that sounds like a good thing. We want kids to get a diploma, but your reporting also seems to indicate that kids might be getting shortchanged in that.

ANYA KAMENETZ: That’s exactly right.

So, we talk about the good, the bad and the ambiguous. And obviously when you have states offering second chances to kids, offering the ability, like in North Carolina, to get a basic skills diploma, or in Camden, New Jersey, where half of the kids are graduating on an appeals process because they can’t pass the required exams, we want to offer kids second chances.

America is the land of second acts, but the problem is, the concern from researchers says that, if you don’t really complete required courses and do so at a relative level of achievement, then you haven’t mastered the skills that you need to go on. And so that’s why we’re seeing perhaps so many students who come into community college, and they need to take high school courses over again. And, of course, they’re paying college tuition for that privilege.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Anya Kamenetz from National Public Radio, thank you so much.

ANYA KAMENETZ: Thank you so much.

PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.


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