More (yes, more) on Akron's graduation rate

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Over the past two years, Fordham has been an outspoken critic of some of the efforts to modify Ohio’s graduation requirements. It’s not that we think the current graduation requirements are perfect. Heck, we’ve even offered a variety of ideas to modify the current framework. It’s that the “solutions” being offered create pathways where students can receive diplomas without any objective demonstration of academic competency. To us, this is a problem and ignores the very real reason that graduation requirements were made more rigorous in the first place. Namely, too few students have been graduating from high school with the skills to either go to college or enter the workforce.

In early May, the Akron Beacon Journal wrote an important story detailing how the modified graduation requirements for the class of 2018 (students who can’t pass state assessments or earn industry credentials can receive a diploma by completing two of nine other pathways) are playing out in Akron. This is the first large school district where we could see the impact of the modified graduation requirements.

The data raised many concerns for me, and I wrote an op-ed that was published on May 17 in the Beacon Journal. Akron Superintendent David James wrote a response to my op-ed that was published on May 26. Some of the points raised by Superintendent James, who from everything I’ve heard is a good district leader, deserve a response. What follows is the superintendent’s op-ed with comments added. This rather unorthodox format is being used in an effort not to take the superintendent’s remarks out of context. We hope you find it useful.


Achieving results with higher graduation standards

By David W. James

Problems can seem simple to solve until we truly understand them. The danger in oversimplifying problem-solving — in a public forum — is that some folks may actually believe those solutions really are as simple as someone is telling them. In most cases, they are not.

Couldn’t agree more that solutions can seem simpler on paper than in reality. The bigger issue that the superintendent doesn’t address is what problem are trying to be solved.

Such is the case with the May 17 commentary by Chad Aldis of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute (“When progress really isn’t progress”). Aldis’ argument that standards are being watered down so we can graduate more students is flawed because standards are actually much more stringent and rigorous now.

Suggesting that the alternative graduation options are “more stringent and rigorous” is a big claim (made by many) and completely unsupported by the facts. State law initially provided three ways of graduating. Worried not enough kids would make the cut, the state kept the three original pathways and added another option that involved students completing two of nine alternative measures. If you create different measures because students can’t reach the original ones, it’s hard to say they are more rigorous.

Recently, Mark Black, our director of secondary education, reported to our board that at the beginning of the school year, 54 percent of Akron Public Schools seniors had already met requirements for graduation. It is important to note that figure was not a projection for how many students would graduate in June.

Given the significantly higher bar set by the state, this is a great achievement and worthy of celebration.

In October, after the school year had begun, the state Department of Education added alternative solutions for students to continue to pursue a diploma, even though they had not yet met the previous standards. The standards are rigorous, not watered down.

“Rigorous”… Unfortunately, writing the word again doesn’t it make the claim any truer. The standard had been: Earn a remediation college admission test score, pass a majority of the state’s end of course exam points, or earn an industry credential and demonstrate your learning via a WorkKeys assessment. Do we really think that some of the nine alternative measures—like working at a part time job for 120 hours (an average of three hours per week), having a 93 percent attendance rate, or receiving a senior year 2.5 grade point average—are “rigorous”?

As educators, we know that some students do better if given an alternative to merely using testing as an indicator of intelligence. For those who had not yet met the requirements, they now had opportunities to earn the 18 points needed for graduation by later in the school year.

Two things: First, this isn’t about a measure of intelligence. It’s about ensuring students can read and do math at a level that allows them to go to college if they choose, or have work credentials if they’d prefer to enter the labor force directly. Second, this is a misstatement of how the alternative pathways worked. Students did not earn points based upon those measures. Points became irrelevant, and students could receive a diploma without regard to their “point” totals.

Mark Black employed an aggressive approach and brought in retired educators to volunteer to help students who had gotten off track. They could, with mentoring, follow the alternative pathways and indeed still graduate. As of this day, we have increased the number of seniors now on track to graduate by nearly 40 percentage points thanks to his plan. Here is how we arrive at this projection:

  • We have 1,444 students in the class of 2018.
  • 54 percent have met the graduation requirements by achieving 18 points on the Ohio State Test and accumulating 21 credits. Students not in that group, though, still have two more attempts at the tests.
  • 37.2 percent have met two or more of the Alternative Pathways and accumulated 21 credits for graduation.
  • 1.7 percent are in progress to meeting two of the nine Alternative Pathways needed and to accumulating the necessary credits.
  • 7.1 percent are off track in meeting two of the nine Alternative Pathways and accumulating 21 credits.

Mr. Black’s efforts were commendable and deserve recognition. Akron Schools didn’t do anything wrong. The alternative graduation pathways was bad state policy that lowered the bar for students.

As for the data, they strengthen my argument. The graduation rate will be higher. The question remains whether the students will be ready for either college or the workforce. That’s where my concern lies. It looks like 54 percent met the state’s original requirements at the beginning of the year. Did that number change? How many students became ready for college or career?

As we have stated publicly, we could graduate 93 percent of the 1,444 seniors that are with us now. That is how many are on track to graduate. This has a slight margin for error, though, because these numbers do not include students who may drop out. The final graduation formula has that and other components playing a part in its determination.

This is a 20 percent increase over the current graduation rate that required passage of the old Ohio Graduation Test assessment. Let me get this straight: Nothing was watered down, but the graduation rate increased 20 percent in one year? Didn’t I read somewhere about oversimplifying problems…

We realistically project our graduation rate at least 10 points to 15 points higher than our previous rate of 73 percent. Suffice to say, this alternative solution by the state, which focuses on academic rigor and demonstration of college and career readiness, combined with our aggressive approach is working for our students and their families.

Again, your approach to helping students receive a diploma is worthy of commendation. The same efforts could have been focused on helping them demonstrate academic proficiency or earn an industry credential that would give them real work skills after high school. As for the suggestion that state’s alternative solution “focuses on academic rigor,” you’ll need a lot more evidence to convince anyone.

Let’s pretend it is 1993, because many of us who graduated high school before 1994 would have been the beneficiary of a less rigorous set of graduation standards than students who picked up their diplomas between 1994 and today. That group of beneficiaries would include Chad Aldis, who would have — had he been born just a few years later — found himself with anything but watered down standards.

Though I found it kind of strange to be personally mentioned in a response, it provides a nice opportunity to state categorically that neither I nor any other student who grows up economically disadvantaged are a “beneficiary” of low standards. Students don’t benefit from having low expectations related to core math and reading skills.

Importantly, this is an acknowledgement from the superintendent that prior to 1994, when no objective demonstration of academic competency was required for earning a diploma, the requirements were less rigorous. That’s exactly what happened with the class of 2018.

As it was, for Aldis to have graduated from high school, all he had to do was his homework, get his 18 credits and pass his final exams. So the argument he presents is flawed.

This just doesn’t make any sense. My argument was that, even though Akron’s graduation rate jumped, it’s not clear that its students are more prepared for college or the workforce. The graduation requirements I had to meet have no connection, but I can say that, while I have done well, many of my classmates haven’t. I can’t help but wonder if their lives would have been different if they’d left high school more prepared.

I’m adding a link for those of you who can go online to our website to see what Ohio state standards are. For those of you who graduated prior to 1994, think about how you might have done using today’s benchmarks.

Think about something else, too. Think about how many fewer factory jobs exist now than in the 80s and 90s. Think about how workers are expected to know more than ever. Think about the people you graduated with that just weren’t prepared by the end of high school and have struggled their entire lives.

Let’s be clear about one thing. Today’s students do not have an easier path to graduation. Much to the contrary. I began by telling you that solutions seem simple until we really have an understanding of the problem. We hope readers of this will not do what Aldis did and oversimplify the solution. This is much too important for any of us to employ that “logic.”

Students in the class of 2018 were the first since 1994 not to have to show academic competence in any subject to graduate. Speaking of oversimplifying solutions, I’m not sure that anything could be simpler than giving students diplomas even when they don’t have core academic or career skills. Simple for the adults that is, not for the students.

Since Superintendent James started with saying that solutions are simple until you understand the problem, it seems fitting to conclude with a reminder of the problem. Too few students, in Akron and across the state, are ready for life after high school. The state’s weakened—yes, less rigorous—graduation standards for the class of 2018 do nothing to resolve that problem.

Chad L. Aldis
Chad L. Aldis is the Vice President for Ohio Policy and Advocacy of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.