Everyone who believes graduation rates across this state have skyrocketed over the past few years, resulting in better-educated people getting a diploma on graduation day, raise your hands.
OK, put them down. This is a newspaper and I can’t see you. But I doubt it mattered because my guess is almost no one reading this would be gullible enough to believe our state — after decades of being an educational laughing stock — has suddenly become a national leader in education excellence. But that’s what we’ve been told since 2012. That’s the year our state’s education rate began its meteoric rise from an embarrassing 72 percent to a third-best-in-the-country 89 percent in 2015.
That’s what the people in charge of public education in Alabama would have us believe, at least.
Suddenly a U.S. Department of Education review has top educators backpedaling and admitting a calculation error in the reporting has produced inaccurate results. Um, Alabama State Department of Education, we’re going to need you to take math again this summer.
“We are accountable to all people of this state and deeply regret the misstating of our graduation rate,” State Superintendent of Education Michael Sentance said of the burgeoning scandal. “We are now undergoing a meticulous review to ensure that all monitoring and data collection is performed with fidelity.”
Well, as long as it’s a meticulous review performed with fidelity, things should be right as rain in no time. Except this is simply a continuation of the flim-flam that’s been going on in Alabama education for at least the past several years.
What people like Sentance and school system superintendents across the state are once again asking us to believe is that there are no coordinated efforts to put an undeserved shine on our education system. I say “once again” because it wasn’t so long ago we were all looking askance at the impressive testing numbers being turned in across the state. Mobile in particular was singled out as a place where test score inflation was rampant.
Of course, Superintendent Martha Peek brushed aside such charges. We did several stories with teachers who reported seeing cheating firsthand, but those were dismissed as complaints of disgruntled employees or former employees. The school system and the city seemed far more interested in attacking the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for singling out Mobile County Public Schools as a place where aberrant scores indicated a strong likelihood of cheating than they were in really investigating the issue.
As the test cheating scandal kicked into high gear, the state announced schools would be putting more emphasis on graduation rates and doing away with or downgrading testing when it came to judging success. And guess what, graduation rates started shooting through the roof.
Just as in the test cheating scandal, no one is content just to have a modest improvement that won’t raise too many eyebrows. We swung for the fences and turned in results that place Alabama third in the country in terms of graduation rate. So in just three years we went from Sucksville to the Big Leagues when it comes to graduation rate. Truly amazing.
Peek should take a big bow, because Mobile’s beleaguered school system went from a 64 percent graduation rate in 2011 to 86 percent last year!!! This improvement was paced by phenomenal turnarounds at schools like B.C. Rain and Davidson.
In 2011, Rain had a 49 percent graduation rate, but that improved to 91 percent in 2015. Davidson saw its rate go from 55 percent to 90 percent in the same time frame. Those are some pretty eye-popping numbers to say the least. Not to say there haven’t been SOME legitimate improvements. When you look at the fact graduation requirements were lowered in 2013 and the high school graduation exam was also dumped that same year, it stands to reason those changes might also have had as much impact as better teaching methods and a focus on getting students ready for college or employment.
While the Mobile County Public School System was one of three systems in the state visited by the Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General concerning high school graduation rates, Sentance and his crew are nebulously claiming “no significant concerns” have been reported to the state about MCPSS. And I guess we’ll have to buy that for now, but it’s a hard sell.
It also kind of flies in the face of logic and statements coming directly from the State Department of Education, which says local school districts were at least partially to blame for the bad numbers.
“In some cases, local school systems misstated student records and awarded class credit, resulting in diplomas that were not honestly earned. The ALSDE did not monitor local systems with the necessary scrutiny,” a statement from the U.S. Department of Education reads. “This was an internal, administrative oversight and the ALSDE is now in the process of addressing all related areas.”
But we’re just supposed to believe schools where roughly half the students didn’t graduate three years ago have suddenly begun pumping out qualified graduates at nearly double the rate?
The issues right now are no different than they were a few years ago when test pumping was the rage. They are complex to say the least.
In schools where parents aren’t generally terribly involved, it’s hard to get the kids to study or maybe even behave well. As a teacher, if you fail everyone who deserves to fail, you’ll probably get fired. And if you ever hope to move up into the big bucks of administration, there’s pressure to post good results. As the test scandal would suggest, some people are willing to do almost anything to move on up that school system ladder.
In the meantime, remediation rates among Alabama’s recent graduates remain remarkably high, suggesting that regardless of what their diploma says, many students aren’t terribly well educated when they leave high school. So the bottom line is, what are we willing to accept from our county and our state?
The one thing we absolutely can’t accept is dishonesty when it comes to reporting on these graduation rates.