What Good Are Higher Graduation Rates If Students Aren’t Learning More?

On Thursday, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) released the results of its 2015 science assessment for America’s 4th, 8th, and 12th grade students. Only 22 percent of 12th graders scored at or above the proficient level, compared to 38 percent of 4th graders and 34 percent of 8th graders. And while 4th and 8th graders both saw a small but significant improvement from 2009, high school seniors stagnated — earning the same average score as the 2009 sample.

This was also true across all subgroups. Among students of colors, students with disabilities, English language learners (ELLs), rural students, and female students, not a single group saw a statistically significant score change from 2009.2015 NAEP Science Assessment Scores

We saw a similar trend in April, when NAEP released the 12th grade results of its 2015 reading and math assessments. Seniors’ average reading score did not significantly change — again across every single subgroup. The average 12th grade math score declined.

And yet, earlier this month, data released by the U.S. Department of Education (ED) showed that America’s high school graduation rate has reached a record high of 83 percent, continuing a five year trend. In stark contrast with this year’s NAEP data, rates among students of color, students with disabilities, ELLs, and low-income students have all improved.

While this is certainly good news, it begs the question: What good are higher graduation rates if students aren’t learning more?

According to ED Secretary John King: “Students who have a high school diploma do better in the 21st Century economy than students who don’t. So having a higher graduation rate is meaningful progress.” While high school graduates do earn more than non-graduates, this answer is still deeply unsatisfying.

States will have the opportunity to seriously address America’s stagnant high schools in the coming years. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), signed into law last December, provides greater flexibility for states in almost every facet of federal K-12 education policy. The law makes it easier for states to spend Title I money on high school students. It also gives states much greater leeway for using school improvement funds, including an optional set-aside for programs like Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and career and technical education. It remains to be seen exactly how states will implement the law, but luckily we’ll have NAEP along the way to give us a national snapshot of student learning.

We’re doing a better job of shepherding students to high school completion — now we just need to make sure they actually learn something.

1 thought on “What Good Are Higher Graduation Rates If Students Aren’t Learning More?

  1. Richard Innes

    This Bellwether article raises a very serious concern about rising diploma award rates. Can it be that much of the increase is due to more awards of diplomas that are not backed up by adequate educations?

    Certainly, evidence I have assembled for the Bluegrass Institute in Kentucky adds to such concerns. Using two different analyses approaches, it is very clear that there is no quality control behind Kentucky’s high school diploma awards. The amount of rigor represented by a Kentucky high school diploma varies dramatically across the state’s school districts.

    However, one hopeful statement in the article does merit some cautionary comments. The article says:

    “…luckily we’ll have NAEP along the way to give us a national snapshot of student learning.”

    In fact, recent online discussions and coverage in Education Week indicate that one important NAEP product, the Long Term Trend NAEP, which should have been given again in 2016, is delayed according to current National Assessment Governing Board proposals until 2024.

    Changes are coming to the Main NAEP in 2017 as well, including a move to online testing. Changing test conditions could bias scores according to research involving other tests that have been given in both traditional and online formats.

    Will the Main NAEP trend lines remain stable in the future? It’s not possible to know right now. But, the Main NAEP Science Assessment provides one recent example that Main NAEP does experience trend line obliteration from time to time. The Main NAEP science framework was changed for the 2009 administration, which severed an existing trend line that ran back to 1996.

    Main NAEP Grade 12 math suffered a similar trend line loss in 2005 when that assessment was so dramatically changed that the former 500-point scoring scale was changed to its present 300-point scale.

    Aside from NAEP, the recent revisions to the SAT are well-known. And, the ACT, Inc. has recently cancelled a number of products with considerable trend lines such as the EXPLORE, PLAN and COMPASS tests, as well.

    So, be wary of more testing trend line issues that could include even the NAEP.

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