We know that Kentucky's high school graduation rates are improving, even if we're not sure how they really compare to other states. That is probably a good thing; if students aren't staying in school we have no chance to educate them. But in the long run, a diploma only has value if it means that students have mastered a certain level of knowledge and skill. New research from the Bluegrass Institute shows that some Kentucky school districts are doing a remarkably good job of ensuring their high school diplomas really represent some measure of achievement, while others need a lot of improvement.
Using public data on 2014-2015 district report cards (the latest year for which such data are available), Richard Innes, education analyst for the Bluegrass Institute, has compared districts' graduation rates with two other measures of student achievement: college and career readiness rates, and the percentages of students who pass the state-required Algebra II end-of-course assessment. [Note: I serve on the Bluegrass Institute Board of Scholars, so I had an early look at these data but did not contribute to the analysis].
The way schools calculate the percentage of students who have achieved college or career readiness (CCR) is complicated and subject to some debate as to its validity, but CCR currently counts toward 20% of a high school's overall accountability score, so it's an important, if limited, measure. To account for the possible validity concerns with CCR, Innes also considered another measure of student achievement: Algebra II end-of-course (EOC) exam passing rates. Currently all Kentucky students must pass an Algebra II class to graduate from high school. But students don't have to actually pass the state Algebra II exam (the Kentucky Department of Education recommends schools make the EOC worth at least 20% of the student's final grade in the course, but this means a student could easily fail the exam and still pass the class.)
Since it is a more comprehensive measure, Innes used CCR to calculate an "effective graduation rate" for each district: in other words, the percentage of students who started in a district as freshmen and then not only graduated, but graduated college or career ready. He then calculated the gap between the reported and "effective" graduation rates, and ranked the districts by size of the gap. For the second analysis, he calculated the gap between reported graduation rate and the district's Algebra II proficiency rate and again ranked districts by the size of their gaps. You can access spreadsheets detailing district-by-district results for both analyses by clicking here and scrolling to the bottom of the post.
These data reveal that the graduation gap based on CCR rate varies from as much as 57 points (Covington Independent) to as little as 2 points (Jenkins Independent; see data for the highest and lowest graduation/effective grad rate gaps here). I spent seven years working as a school and district administrator in the Simpson County Schools, and I'm pleased to note that this district was one of the best in this regard. In 2014-2015, Simpson County graduated 93.9% of its students on time, and 91.6% of those graduates were also rated as college or career ready. This makes for an effective graduation rate of 86%, a gap of only 7.9 points, the third best in the state.
When it comes to comparing graduation rates against Algebra II EOC, the numbers are more troubling with gaps ranging from a high of 91.9 (Washington County) to Caverna Independent on the low (positive) end, which had slightly more students pass the Algebra II EOC than actually graduated. Note that Caverna's overall graduation rate of 76.7% is distressingly low, a situation I'm sure the district is trying to address, but stakeholders can be pleased that students who do achieve the high school diploma in that district are proficient in Algebra II.
I'm most interested in districts from the Green River Regional Educational Cooperative (GRREC) region because those are the districts I primarily serve in my role at the university. I'm pleased that several GRREC districts were among the best at ensuring students who graduate are also proficient in Algebra II. Grayson County, Glasgow Independent, Todd County, and LaRue County were all top performers in this regard (see a chart highlighting the biggest and smallest graduation/Algebra II EOC gaps here). I'd be curious to know if these districts require a higher percentage of the EOC in students' final Algebra II grades, and if that has anything to do with their relative success.
These are district data, of course, so if a district has more than one high school there could be significance variance within that district that doesn't show up on these spreadsheets. [Update: As one reader points out, another limitation is that this analysis comes from only one year of data. These numbers can fluctuate quite a lot from year to year so trend data would be very illuminating here in terms of districts' relative position.]
In this post I've tried to highlight districts that are doing well in making sure their diplomas really do represent a higher level of student learning, but of course the real story is that this gap is so large for so many districts in the first place. As I noted last week, we can easily lapse into distracting "happy talk" about the state of education and miss the damning evidence that we've go to do much, much better overall. I hope state and district leaders will study these data carefully and prioritize lifting student achievement at least as much as we've raised graduation rates. That would be a good start.
Update (8/16): To address the question of how Kentucky's low-income students are doing in these analyses (relevant given the recent, flawed Johns Hopkins University report that alleges Kentucky is outperforming other states in improving graduation rates for students who receive free and reduced lunch), Bluegrass Institute education analyst Richard Innes has also looked proficiency rates on the Algebra II EOC and CCR rates just for this target group. This analysis just looked at statewide rates, but reveals a similar gap.
The statewide reported graduation rate for low-income students in 2014-2015 was 84% (the overall rate for all students was 87%), but only 27% of low-income students passed the Alebra II EOC, a gap of 57 points. Details here.
Of the low-income students who graduated statewide in 2015, only 55% were identified as college or career ready, which makes for an effective graduation rate of 46% for that group, a gap of 37 points. Details here.
Realistically, we have no idea how those numbers compare to other states, but it affirms that the achievement gap takes many forms, and the gap between receiving a diploma and valid measures of life readiness is one that educators and policy makers must address.
Usual disclaimer: All opinions expressed on this blog are mine alone and do not reflect the views of Western Kentucky University or the Kentucky Board of Education.
Image above from the public domain, Creative Commons Zero.