When progress isn't progress: Akron’s graduation rate soars

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Education is hard, so we should celebrate success at every opportunity. A sky-high graduation rate, for example, should make us smile from ear to ear. But a recent Akron Beacon Journal (ABJ) report on dramatically higher graduation rates in Akron City Schools should raise serious concerns.

According to the story, Akron school officials calculated last fall that only 54 percent of the class of 2018 was on track to graduate. This estimate was based on how many students had earned or were likely to earn the required number of points on the state’s new and more rigorous end of course (EOC) exams. Given that Akron’s graduation rate was 74 percent the previous year (2017), district officials were understandably worried. Rather than helping students acquire a diploma through shoring up academic weaknesses to pass EOC exams or earn an industry certification, Akron opted to take advantage of the alternative—and much softer--- graduation requirements pitched by the state board and passed earlier in the year by Ohio lawmakers. 

The new requirements are absurdly easy. Students need only meet two of nine metrics, which include non-academic measures such as 93 percent attendance during a student’s senior year and completing 120 hours of community service. Many voices had warned that lowering the bar in this way could have serious consequences, as it would erase all incentives for districts to focus on ways to improve students’ mastery of actual academic content. Unfortunately, it appears that’s exactly what’s happening in Akron.

After identifying all the students who weren’t on track to graduate, district officials required those lacking EOC points to complete a “senior project”—one of the alternative metrics. The second metric was left up to students, and most chose the GPA (a senior year 2.5 average), good attendance, or community service option. The result? A projected graduation rate of 93 percent. That’s right. Thirty-nine percent of Akron seniors who were previously determined to be academically off-track in reading and math will now receive a diploma at the end of the month.

The nagging question everyone should ask is whether these young people are prepared for success after high school. The district may have responded adroitly to incentives and taken steps to help students get a diploma, but it's not clear how much time was spent improving the reading and math skills they will need if they decide to attend college. Nor is there any sign that Akron school officials redoubled the district’s efforts to help students acquire in-demand technical skills and certificates that could result in both a diploma and employment earning a living wage.

When the celebrations come to a close at the end of the month and students take off their caps and gowns, high school will be over. In Akron, more young people than ever before will have a diploma. But will they actually have an education? Will they have an opportunity to pursue the American Dream? Or are their diplomas more like sports participation trophies, which are essentially meaningless since everybody gets one?

It’s tempting to celebrate the results of low standards in order to avoid the hard truth that too many students aren’t learning all that they should. Touting a lofty graduation rate is far more pleasant than answering questions about a lower one. But students who walk offstage with a meaningless diploma are destined for big disappointments in the real world that follows.

NOTE: A version of this blog first appeared as a guest editorial in the Akron Beacon Journal on May 16, 2018.

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