Are Rising MMSD Grad Rates Something to Celebrate?

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Investigative reporting by National Public Radio and journalists from The Washington Post (among others) revealed school districts on the East Coast and elsewhere using questionable tactics to raise high school graduation rates. 

NPR reporters based their graduation rate investigations on the core subject areas used by the U.S. Department of Education to determine college readiness. The NPR report says districts often used similar strategies—either “good, bad or ambiguous”—to raise graduation rates; “stepping in early to keep kids on track, lowering the bar by offering alternatives and easier routes when students falter, and gaming the system by moving likely dropouts off the books, transferring them or misclassifying them.” 

Some of these same strategies help Madison increase its high school graduation rates. 

Stepping in Early

As reported by Simpson Street Free Press, in 2017 Madison’s overall graduation rate rose five points, and the rate for African American students jumped 15 points in just one year. 

In interviews with reporters last March, Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham credited rising graduation rates to “working hard at just knowing our students better and intervening earlier,” among other efforts. 

“There has been a real emphasis on making sure we get more students, and specifically more students of color and students living in poverty, graduated from high school,” Cheatham said. 

She also credited the MMSD strategic framework launched in 2013, her first year as Superintendent, for raising graduation rates. 

The strategic framework established a “vision for MMSD” as a place where, “Every school will be a thriving school that prepares every student to graduate from high school college, career and community ready.” 

“We made a commitment collectively to knowing by name every student who was not on track to graduate that we are going to make sure to work with that student and his or her family to develop a plan to help them graduate because we know how devastating it is not to graduate from high school,” Cheatham said in an interview with Madison 365

Chief Accountability Officer for MMSD Andrew Statz said of rising rates, “it comes down to increased GPA, which means credit attainment, which means on-time graduation.” According to Statz, the average for African American students in MMSD last year increased by .09 of a percentage point, “almost a tenth in GPA, which is good to recognize.” 

When asked about progress toward achieving MMSD’s vision, Madison School Board Member TJ Mertz said he sees progress and room for improvement. 

“I believe consistent scores at the lowest level are worth paying attention to, and the numbers and percentages of those have decreased since 2013. Both numbers and percentages are remaining much larger than is acceptable, but there has been progress,” Mertz said in an email to Simpson Street Free Press. 

The Madison District has seen graduation rates improve. But, it remains unclear if those students are prepared for college and career. Students who are not adequately prepared before they graduate often pay the price in college. 

In 2016, Act 28 took effect requiring the UW Board of Regents to submit an annual report to the Legislature. The reports identify Wisconsin high schools that graduate six or more students who require remedial courses in English or math upon admission to a UW system school. 

Students enrolled in remedial coursework at UW schools pay full tuition prices but do not earn college credit for those classes. This extends their college graduation dates and increases their college costs. Tuition prices at UW system schools range from $5,186.00 per year to $10,534.00 per year for Wisconsin residents. 

In 2015, 33 percent or one-third of Madison La Follette students attending UW colleges required remedial coursework in math. About 11 percent of East High students needed remedial coursework. 

The following year, 26 percent of La Follette students required remedial coursework in math at their UW schools. At East High and West High nearly 14 percent of graduated students required remedial math coursework in college. 

Retention of college students of color is a much talked-about issue at UW-Madison and other colleges across the country. 

Lowering the Bar

Longtime Education Activist Laurie Frost and other local education watchers worry about the long-term ramifications of lowering academic standards, especially for students of color. 

“Again, I’ll say, maybe not consciously, but lowering bars doesn’t do anyone any favors—especially the students, and especially students of color,” Frost said.  

Education experts evaluating the significance of rising graduation rates cite a need to examine credit recovery programs. According to NPR, about nine out of 10 U.S. school districts provide some form of “credit recovery” to give students a second chance to earn credit for previously failed or uncompleted courses.

“We should all be very concerned that pressures to pass students, credit recovery programs, a lack of academic challenges and other things may be in play,” Mertz said. “African American students may be disproportionately impacted by a simplistic emphasis on graduation rates at the expense of learning and preparation.” 

In a phone interview, an online program specialist for MMSD said Madison students who fail courses can take credit recovery courses on the recommendation of their school counselor. These courses are typically offered online through a program called Apex Learning. But students enrolled in online credit recovery courses are also paired with a teacher to build relationships and help them manage their work. There is no limit to how many times students can take the same credit recovery course until they pass. 

“Some of these credit recovery programs frankly aren’t terribly rigorous and aren’t preparing students well for what’s next,” Daria Hall of The Education Trust, an education research and advocacy non-profit, told NPR reporters. 

Amie Kabera is the president of the Black Student Union at La Follette High School, where she will be a senior next year. Kabera has many peers who have utilized credit recovery courses, which they told her took about two weeks to complete and were “extremely easy.” 

“With credit recovery, it’s really easy to receive that credit back. You don’t even have to go to summer school,” Kabera said. “I feel like credit recovery should be harder, a little challenging.” 

David C. Bloomfield, Professor of education leadership, law and policy at Brooklyn College, shares Kabera and Hall’s concerns. He said: 

Credit recovery permits students to pass courses they have already failed, often by taking a simple quiz or by making up an assignment, either of which can be heavily coached. Often performed online through commercial vendors pitching high success rates, credit recovery shortchanges graduations while the time and expense of remediation are passed along to colleges, unfairly increasing students’ tuition burdens and straining higher education budgets.

Moreover, NPR also identified Wisconsin as one of several states that does not require students to take Algebra II to graduate. Bloomfield and other experts say Algebra II is essential: “If you had to identify one requirement that shows rigor, it’s Algebra II.” 

Wisconsin is also one of 21 states NPR identified as offering some form of an alternative diploma to high school students. MMSD includes the number of students who receive alternative diplomas, called High School Equivalency Diplomas (HSEDs), in its calculation of graduation rates. Madison students can earn an HSED from the Omega School if they demonstrate competency in social studies, writing, math, reading, health, and civics.

Gaming the System

Superintendent Cheatham and Andrew Statz noted the impact of changing standards on graduation rates. Due to a change in policy by the DPI, beginning in 2017 Madison students who complete credits the summer following their fourth year are now included in the four-year graduation rate. 

In 2017, 67 students—3.6 percent of the graduating cohort—received their diplomas in June, despite failing to complete all courses required to graduate. The district’s high school completion report does not specify what percentage of students successfully completed required courses during the subsequent summer. 

Madison’s gradation rates are also affected by the DPI’s graduation policy for alternative high schools. 

If a Madison student attends and graduates from an alternative school or program, she is counted as a graduate from one of four conventional Madison high schools. If she does not graduate, however, she remains assigned to the alternative school. Each alternative school or program has a graduation rate of zero percent. This policy means that graduation rates at Madison’s conventional high schools seem higher than they really are. 

Put differently, high schools send students to alternative schools. And if the student graduates the traditional high school gets credit for their graduation. But, if that student fails to graduate, graduation statistics at their original school remain unaffected. 

In 2017, only nine percent of African American students met college readiness benchmarks on the ACT in reading and math. These scores affect college admittance and play a part in determining if a student requires remedial coursework in college.

“There’s been a lot of pressure in the District for years now to close the achievement gap, whether defined as percent of students performing at grade level, graduation rates, participation in advanced classes, or GPA,” Frost said. “Lowering expectations and manipulating the data in order to give higher grades, course credit, or a high school diploma — whether done consciously or unconsciously in response to that pressure — might make the District look good, but it doesn’t benefit our students, especially our students of color.”

Rising graduation rates are only a good thing if they’re backed by student success in reading, math and other academic skills. Thanks to SSFP for bringing this to light – ElizabethMadison, WI (2018-07-31 14:40)
Thank you for highlighting this important issue. Proactive attention by students, their families, and community members to ensure that the value of a diploma remains meaningful will, I hope, help us do right by our students and avoid having to learn the lessons that school leadership in D.C. and other districts had to learn the hard way. – Chan StromanMadison (2018-07-31 16:21)
This is some incredibly eye-opening reporting. Hopefully this will put pressure on the district to go beyond surface-level "improvement" and actually serve our students, particularly students of color. Closing aspects of the achievement gap on paper means nothing if it doesn't bolster and encourage the success of students in reality. – MollyMadison, WI (2018-07-31 17:04)
It is very important that students are graduating ready to go to college and succeed. It is good to see that this issue is being reported. – AmyMadison, WI (2018-07-31 17:51)
wow GREAT article!!! – DarcyMadison,WI (2018-07-31 17:57)
It really isn't fair to pass our kids along without the education they need to go to college. Only 2 out of 10 kids are ready for college. Its not fair to pass our children with high school diplomas when they are not where they need to be to graduate. I'd rather our kids stay behind a year or two and get the knowledge they need to go to college.

My son entered college at the lowest level he could have gotten, which left him feeling stressed. Even at that level he couldn't keep up with the professors. Please stop pushing our kids through high school and graduating them when they not ready for college.

I see the same behavior with my grandson in grammar school. He going into 6 grade and he can't count a dollar. You put a dollar in front of him and he don't know how to count. Are our kids really earning the diploma they are receiving? – Jewel AdamsSouth Madison (2018-07-31 20:05)
Great analysis of the metrics of success used in our local school districts. Thanks SSFP for everything you do for our kids and for bringing these tough topics to light. – EllieMiddleton (2018-08-01 06:08)
Thank you, Simpson Street Free Press, for having the courage, integrity, and commitment to our kids to examine this critical issue. The data make it clear that we are graduating more and more students who are not college ready and who cannot read and do math at grade level. What good is a high school diploma without high school level skills? As a community and as a school district, we will not be able to effectively address this shameful problem until we are honest with ourselves about it. – LaurieMadison (2018-08-06 10:28)
What an interesting read! – HelenUW-Madison (2018-09-05 18:52)
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