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High school graduation rates are on the rise. Since 2001, graduation rates have increased in school districts across the country, and the U.S. Department of Education estimates the current national high school graduation rate at 84 percent.
But, in recent years, scandals in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Maryland and elsewhere cause education experts to question the wisdom of using graduation rates as an academic measurement tool.
According to district data, the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) saw significant jumps in four-year graduation rates in spring 2017. Madison’s overall graduation rate rose five points, and the rate for African American students jumped an eyebrow-raising 15 points in one year. Those rates, however, were not accompanied by corresponding increases in student achievement as measured by ACT college readiness benchmarks in core subjects like math and reading.
“Completion rates are obviously important, but they are the tip of the iceberg,” says longtime education activist Laurie Frost. “And they can be manipulated, whether consciously or unconsciously, in ways that performance on objective measures — measures that are used across the country — cannot be. Standardized test results cannot be fudged.”
Close examinations by Simpson Street Free Press reporters identify large gaps in ACT college readiness between and among MMSD students.
More African American students are graduating from local schools, but actual achievement gaps in Madison have widened or shown no improvement, according to key benchmarks reported by Wisconsin Department of Public of Instruction.
During the 2014-15 school year, the state began to mandate and pay for all high school students to take the ACT college entrance exam. The Madison School District, however, mandated and paid for the test beginning in 2013-14, a year earlier than required.
Rachel Strauch-Nelson, media relations director for MMSD, said the district mandated the test a year early because they thought it was “one important piece” of measuring student success, along with GPA rates, advanced coursework and other measures.
“Increasing participation is the right thing to do because then we get the data so that we can have this conversation about college readiness,” Strauch-Nelson said.
According to a 2017 district report, participation rates for African American students increased from 52 percent in 2012-13 to 73 percent in 2017—a 21 percent change. In contrast, 93 percent of white students took the ACT in 2017, while 85 percent of students took the test overall.
College readiness benchmark scores represent the minimum level of academic preparedness necessary for students to have “a 75% chance of obtaining a C or higher in corresponding credit-bearing first-year college courses,” according to the ACT.
From the 2012-13 school year to the 2016-17 school year, ACT benchmark scores for African American students in Madison across core subject areas (English, math, reading and science) decreased slightly or showed no improvements, according to district data. In contrast, for white students, scores increased slightly in all core subject areas except for math, which decreased by 1 percentage point.
Of the African American students who took the ACT exam in 2017, only about 20 percent met college readiness benchmarks in English, 9 percent in math, 9 percent in reading and just 4 percent met benchmarks in science.
Among white students, 83 percent were college ready in English, 69 percent in math, 71 percent in reading and 64 percent in science. In other words, Madison’s African American students face an ACT college readiness gap of 60 percentage points or more.
In a 2017 email to Simpson Street Free Press, Founder and President of One City Schools Kaleem Caire lamented Madison’s ACT college readiness gap, which has persisted over the past five years. Caire pointed out that by June of 2013, only about 54 percent of Black students graduated high school. But only a small percentage of students were considered “ready” to succeed in college level reading according to ACT entrance exams. Although there has been little to no progress made toward closing these gaps, graduation rates for African American students continue to climb.
“We will never diversify business and industry, or reduce poverty and underemployment if this is all the success we produce among our children,” Caire said.