Data released last week indicates state test scores are less likely to represent graduation rates — those with low tests scores don’t necessarily have low graduation rates, and vice versa — indicating that grad rate gains may have more to do with changing standards than with learning, according to a Chalkbeat analysis.
The U.S. public high school graduation rate rose from 79% in 2011 to 84.6% in 2017, despite flat test scores, and some states' grad rates and test scores vary significantly: Washington state and Colorado have high test scores and low grad rates, for example, while Texas and West Virginia have low test scores and some of the nation’s highest grad rates.
There could be many reasons for this discrepancy, including differences in graduation standards across states, with some requiring students to pass a set of exams to graduate, or that tests taken by 8th-graders don’t necessarily reflect what they learn in high school. The disconnect is growing, however, with 8th-grade NEAP math and reading scores having been more closely tied to a state’s grad rate six years ago than today.
This report is another piece of evidence that districts could be inflating their graduation rates by either pushing unprepared students through graduation or pushing them out of school because it’s likely they won’t graduate. According to NPR, the incident rate of these "pushouts" has increased since 2002, when grad rates became an accountability measure at the federal level.
Part of the problem is that the district’s success is based on its grad rates. In a report, NPR identified factors that would help improve those rates, or at least make them less deceptive. Insisting that students master the required material before graduating is one recommendation. Graduating means little if a student doesn't understand the material.
The credit recovery trend may also be tied to this phenomenon. Credit recovery courses are not always well-vetted, and there have been examples of some students taking these courses without taking the original course first. There are suspicions that credit recovery courses are helping districts game the system by graduating students who may not have a full grasp of the material and would otherwise not graduate.