Issue November 13, 2012

Graduation rates and realities

Does the new accountability system put certain schools at a disadvantage?

When the Kentucky Department of Education recently released much-anticipated test scores, familiar storylines surfaced despite new, tougher academic standards, new accountability tests and a new model for measuring success.

Schools that have traditionally struggled hung back, ranking low when stacked up against all Kentucky public schools. Meanwhile, dominant schools resumed their perch in the 90th percentile or above for overall performance.

Caught in this seemingly static evolution, some school administrators feel the new accountability system doesn’t fully factor in the many challenges low-performing schools endure; for instance, the transient nature of much of the Jefferson County Public Schools’ student population. In high schools, it’s a reality that can sour graduation rates, now worth 20 percent of a school’s overall ranking.

“It’s almost impossible for any Jefferson County school to do well just because of the transfer rate of kids,” says Rebecca Nicolas, a Fern Creek High School assistant principal. “If you have one county high school, kids don’t have anywhere to go, so your graduation rate is a lot higher than it is in any Jefferson County Public School short of Manual, Male and Butler.”

Hardin and Oldham counties, each of which have three county high schools, posted graduation rates at 80 percent or above. (Poverty rates are also lower in those counties.) Compare that to the Academy at Shawnee, located in west Louisville and one of 19 JCPS high schools. Their graduation rate for 2011-2012 totaled 42 percent.

The formula used to calculate graduation rates is fairly new. The state started using the Averaged Freshman Graduation Rate in 2010. Basically, this calculation takes the total number of graduates in a particular year (say 2010) and divides it by the average number of 9th and 10th graders from 2006 and 2007.

This formula assumes that enrollment is consistent over time. It does not capture district or community factors that have caused a loss in population over four years. According to district data from 2011, Shawnee’s “mobility rate” is about 17 percent, meaning of the school’s roughly 500 students, about 85 either leave or transfer in during the year. (Valley, Western and Iroquois also have high mobility rates, from 14 to nearly 18 percent for Valley.)

“The equation assumes that for every kid that transfers out there must be a kid that transfers in,” says Shawnee’s principal, Keith Look. “But for whatever demographic patterns exist … we always have this incredible loss over four years.”

Look points to the fact that the neighborhoods surrounding Shawnee consist of many rental properties, increasing the chance that families may bounce from home to home, school to school.

Furthermore, west Louisville acts as the diversity hub for the high school student assignment plan. A look at the map that color codes Louisville by assigned high school shades the Shawnee area a little like a Mac rainbow pinwheel, with slices for Eastern, Ballard, Doss, Fairdale and PRP.

“When you move across the street and it sends you to a different school,” Look says, “it appears like we lost that kid, like we didn’t do our job, when in fact, they may be at Doss and valedictorian.”

Out of curiosity, Look wanted to find out how many students from his 2012 graduating class actually dropped out. Using district data, he identified only 10 dropouts in the class that started out 170 strong, although by 12th grade about 80 of those 170 were no longer at Shawnee.

Lisa Gross, spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Education, hears the frustrations and agrees the Averaged Freshman Graduation Rate doesn’t adequately assess a school’s graduation rate. “We’re concerned about it too,” she says, adding that on the plus side, it’s temporary.

By the spring of 2014, the state will report graduation rates differently, using a calculation known as the cohort formula, something the U.S. Department of Education wants all states to implement to make graduation rate reporting uniform.

Gross says the cohort formula will take into account individual students’ trajectory rather than relying on averages and numbers. Each student will have a student identification code. When it comes time to calculate graduation rate, those ID numbers will be compared to the student numbers from four years prior.

“(You’ll) be able to see which students match up and ask what happened to those kids,” Gross explains. It’s still not determined whether a student will have to attend a school for two, three or all four years in order for that kid’s graduation to count toward a school’s graduation rate.

“We’re hopeful the new cohort model will more accurately portray some of the situations our schools face with mobility and graduating students,” says Dena Dossett, planning director for JCPS. “I mean, the graduation rate is worth 20 percent of a high school’s accountability system … that’s one of the five pieces schools are held accountable for. So we want to make sure that the measurement the state is using and holding us accountable for is fair in terms of how it accounts for student mobility.”

The cohort formula will not factor in students sent to alternative schools, another concern amongst principals. While a child who’s sent to alternative school may spend very little time at their “home” school, ultimately that home school is held accountable for their graduation.

Gross says the state has devoted time and staff to reviewing alternative schools, but adds, “We need to have more discussion and more analysis of what’s happening in alt programs before we make any decisions on how schools are held accountable for the kids that go into those programs.”

Mining through graduation rate formulas may help put context to a school’s low performance. But critics could argue a better school would decrease attrition. And for many JCPS schools, mobility isn’t a huge problem. Dewey Hensley, chief academic officer for JCPS, tells LEO strengthening schools at all levels could help keep students engaged and at their assigned school.

But at Shawnee, Look says certain realities are beyond his control. “You’d like to think that the school is so compelling that the family would make every sacrifice to stay at that institution, but that’s not always possible,” he says, citing the hardships many of his students’ families battle. “So the graduation rate becomes a measure that I am limited in my ability to influence.”