Recent reports about improved graduation rates could be great news if a larger portion of high school students in Connecticut are graduating better prepared for future adult and academic life. It might also be good news if it means that our state’s public schools are better prepared to serve our high school students.
As Mark Pazniokas writes, graduation rates in Connecticut have now become a political campaign talking point. But there are a number of things we still don’t know about these reported increases. So I have a number of questions.
Click on the links above to go to my thoughts on each question or continue reading below.
A news release from the Governor’s Office and located on the State Department of Education’s website reported an increase in graduation rates, for a fourth consecutive year. The press release stated that 85.5% out of a cohort of 43,496 senior-class students in 2013 graduated in four years. This rate was compared to 84.8% out of 43,905 senior-class students in 2012.
CT SDE reports the percentage of students that are 4-year graduates and the total number of senior students in the 2013 cohort group for the State. You can view the public data for graduation rates by districts here and schools here.
However, these spreadsheets for district and school graduation rates don’t include the actual numbers of total students in the senior class or the actual number of students that graduated in four years or less in each district or school.
Knowing the actual number of graduates is important in order to verify how the CT State Department of Education arrived at their numbers for schools and districts. It’s like math teachers always told us, “Show your work.”
Here’s one example: If we calculate actual number of graduates using SDE’s numbers for the state graduation rate (85.5% graduation rate multiplied by 43,496 students = 37,189 students) there is an interesting result — there were fewer students in the senior class and fewer students that graduated from CT schools in 2013 compared to 2012.
According to CT SDE’s data, there were 42 fewer graduates in 2013 compared to 2012. This doesn’t change the fact that there was a reportedly higher graduation rate. Indeed, the size of the state’s school-age population may have peaked and is either level or getting smaller. That is part of the story about what’s happening with public school enrollment and graduation rates. All this just highlights the need to know actual numbers of students that the State used for the graduation rate calculations for schools, districts, and the whole state.
Connecticut (Reported) Graduation Rates and Actual Numbers of Students
|Total Number of Seniors in Cohort||44,461||45,221||43,905*||43,496|
|Number of Graduating Senior Students||36,369||37,398||37,231||37,189|
Source: CT SDE Reports 2011-2014. *An earlier report from SDE lists the 2012 Cohort Count (N) as 43,883 students, but with the same graduation rate. This would mean that there were 37,213 graduates.
Interestingly, a Federal data site provides more information than the CT SDE spreadsheets. In fact, the Federal site reports the number of children in each adjusted cohort at the district and school level in addition to the graduation rate (2011-12).
Why doesn’t Connecticut provide a list of actual number of students graduating and number of students in each cohort? It seems a simple addition if it’s already available on the Federal website.
Since 2009, Connecticut has used a new method of calculating graduation rates called a four-year “adjusted cohort graduation rate.” (ACGR), which was adopted by the National Governor’s Association. (NGA). (The NGA was one of the groups that helped impose the “common core state (national) standards.”) Put simply, the ACGR attempts to calculate the percentage of first-time ninth graders who graduate within four years or less with a regular high school diploma.
Kids come and go from public schools in the state for a variety of reasons. So the ACGR tries to “adjust” for high school students transferring “in” or “out” of their respective school or district cohorts. But there’s a big catch to this ACGR. The State (and districts following CT SDE rules) ultimately decides how each student that transfers “in” or “out” of a cohort will be categorized, or coded. Only the State Department of Education (or local administrators with access to this data) knows how each student is defined when they transfer “in” or “out” and how many students are in each category of transfer “in” or “out” each school, district, and the state. To its credit, SDE has a detailed explanation of how students count as a transfer either “in” or “out.”
But what are the actual numbers in each category? Why is it important to know?
The way students are coded as a transfer in or out of cohort matters. As Julian Vasquez Heilig, Associate Professor of Educational Policy and Planning at the University of Texas at Austin, points out on his site “Cloaking Inequity,” changes in how students are counted as transfers “in” or “out” can distort graduation rates.
For instance, if students that in reality “drop out” are categorized as “home school” transfer students, then the graduation rate looks better in the ACGR formula. In Connecticut, it would be helpful to see how students that attend alternative schools, or schools that aren’t officially “schools”, are counted in this formula, for instance.
We don’t know what the data shows about transfers “in” and “out” of student cohorts because it’s not being reported along with the graduation rates in CT. This information could help identify the trends happening with cohorts of high school students in our state. Transfer data could also help us answer the bigger question about why a greater percentage of students are reportedly graduating in four years. (i.e. more students transferring back into the graduation cohort or fewer students transferring out of the cohort.)
Note: My initial data request for the actual numbers of students in each transfer “in” and “out” category at the school, district, and state level over the last several years was denied by the Connecticut State Department of Education. You can click here to support this data request or add a comment.
In 2010, Connecticut changed the way Connecticut’s high school students could earn course credits. The “Act Concerning Education Reform in Connecticut,” (Public Act 10-111) allowed high school students to gain credits by taking online courses and/or participating in online credit recovery. This law arguably made obtaining high school credits easier, or at least offered a greater level of flexibility in terms of how students could get a course credit rather than going to class in a real school with classmates and a teacher(s).
In addition to making it easier for students to get credits online, this law also changed Connecticut education policy to conform to requirements of the “Race to the Top” federal grant program. For example, the law also started the requirement to use “multiple indicators of student academic growth” (often interpreted as standardized test results) into teacher evaluations in Connecticut. The state has yet to receive any “Race to the Top” money despite new spending on initiatives to conform to the grant requirements.
Three parts of the 2010 law are important to point out related to online courses and online credit recovery. Connecticut General Statutes Sec. 10-221a states:
“(f) Determination of eligible credits shall be at the discretion of the local or regional board of education, provided the primary focus of the curriculum of eligible credits corresponds directly to the subject matter of the specified course requirements. The local or regional board of education may permit a student to graduate during a period of expulsion pursuant to section 10-233d, if the board determines the student has satisfactorily completed the necessary credits pursuant to this section. The requirements of this section shall apply to any student requiring special education pursuant to section 10-76a, except when the planning and placement team for such student determines the requirement not to be appropriate. For purposes of this section, a credit shall consist of not less than the equivalent of a forty-minute class period for each school day of a school year except for a credit or part of a credit toward high school graduation earned (1) at an institution accredited by the Board of Regents for Higher Education or State Board of Education or regionally accredited; or (2) through on-line coursework that is in accordance with a policy adopted pursuant to subsection (g) of this section.” (Author’s emphasis on new language since 2010)
“(g)Only courses taken in grades nine through twelve, inclusive, shall satisfy this graduation requirement, except that a local or regional board of education may grant a student credit….toward meeting the high school graduation requirement upon the successful completion of on-line coursework, provided the local or regional board of education has adopted a policy in accordance with this subdivision for the granting of credit for on-line coursework. Such a policy shall ensure, at a minimum, that (A) the workload required by the on-line course is equivalent to that of a similar course taught in a traditional classroom setting, (B) the content is rigorous and aligned with curriculum guidelines approved by the State Board of Education, where appropriate, (C) the course engages students and has interactive components, which may include, but are not limited to, required interactions between students and their teachers, participation in on-line demonstrations, discussion boards or virtual labs, (D) the program of instruction for such on-line coursework is planned, ongoing and systematic, and (E) the courses are (i) taught by teachers who are certified in the state or another state and have received training on teaching in an on-line environment, or (ii) offered by institutions of higher education that are accredited by the Board of Regents for Higher Education or State Board of Education or regionally accredited.”
Public Act 10-111 also included a new section that required districts with a substantial portion of students not graduating on time, or ever, to provide an on-line credit recovery program. Sec. 10-223g for on-line credit recovery programs states,
“A local or regional board of education for a school district with a dropout rate of eight per cent or greater in the previous school year shall establish an on-line credit recovery program. Such program shall allow those students who are identified by certified personnel as in danger of failing to graduate to complete on-line coursework approved by the local or regional board of education for credit toward meeting the high school graduation requirement pursuant to section 10-221a. Each school in the school district shall designate, from among existing staff, an on-line learning coordinator who shall administer and coordinate the on-line credit recovery program pursuant to this section.” (Effective July 1, 2010)
These online courses and credit recovery programs could be a helpful way for students to learn new knowledge and skills, and obtain credits. They can also be a way to water down high school courses or shift more students with greater academic challenges into under-regulated on-line courses/credit recovery. Districts and schools doing the latter could boost graduation rates without providing the full array of professional support and learning opportunities that students should get and often get in well-resourced suburbs and schools.
Given that Boards of Education with lower graduation rates were required by the State to offer online credit recovery programs, the districts most likely impacted by this change in state law would be cities and inner-ring suburbs in CT. So the children most likely to be given online credit recovery programs, rather than real courses in a school with actual teachers and classmates, were also likely to be Black, Latino, and children from families that are low-income earners because these children make up large portions of the public school enrollments in the cities and inner-ring suburbs with traditionally lower graduation rates. These students were also more likely to be in under-resourced and racially/economically isolated school from the very beginning.
The CT Mirror examined this issue in their articles, “Schools Push Struggling Students Online” and “School Districts Paying Big Money for Online Programs” a few years back. The articles provided a very helpful picture of these online credit recovery programs that included a number of perspectives from students, administrators, and legislators.
The legitimacy of online courses/credit recovery is a bigger debate and one for another post. But there are other questions to ask to inform that debate. Are schools and districts keeping track of enrollment information about these programs? Which students are taking these credit recovery programs and online courses? How many times and under what supervision and direction? How do the online courses compare to the live classroom experience? Are they as academically challenging and socially engaging? Do all school districts in CT that allow online courses have a written, Board-adopted policy about them, as the law requires?
At the very least, it is important to understand that Connecticut’s laws on earning a credit for high school changed in 2010 to more easily allow online course/credit to count as a high school credit. It is also important to know how many students in Connecticut are now getting credits through online course and online credit recovery programs and how obtaining credits through these programs may be impacting graduation rates, if at all.
A recent press release from the City of Hartford attributed increased graduation rates to the increased use of online credit recovery programs. These online credit recovery and online courses are often called “blended” or “personalized” learning. In Hartford, they allow students to take a course that they did not pass at a later time as an online course multiple times until they “pass.”
So at least one large school district, required to offer online credit recovery by the 2010 state law, attributes increased graduation rates to this change in policy, as well as other initiatives. What about other cities and towns? What about the State of CT?
The best-case scenario is these online programs provide students with new ways to prepare for their future academic work and adult life. The worst-case scenario is that the students that need the most help in school and life are getting shortchanged in terms of academic preparation and learning of interpersonal skills to be productive, engaged, and responsible citizens. This often comes as a result of learning in a real classroom with other real students and real teacher(s), not online.
(Note: The administration’s press release touts improved graduation since 2010, which was same year when the new law that allowed students to earn credit from online courses & credit recovery programs became effective. The current administration assumed office in 2011.)
In the Hartford and New Haven region, there is a great deal of movement of students from school to school and district to district because of public school choice programs such as charter schools, interdistrict magnet schools, and the Open Choice program. When students leave schools assigned by neighborhood for school choice programs (or vice versa), how does that impact each school or district graduation rate, if at all?
It is possible that the Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate method advantages schools with controlled enrollment practices such as magnets and charters that have lotteries only for certain grades (not grades 10,11, or 12), enrollment caps set by the state, and other methods of (de)selecting students. Being able to see the actual numbers of transfers “in” and “out” of a school or district cohort would help answer a number of questions. (See question #2.)
In the State’s ACGR method, when students at magnet and charter schools transfer out, they are removed from their graduation cohort only if they are officially claimed by another school. Magnets and charters have the ability NOT to officially claim new students because of controlled enrollment rules. (See above) Local neighborhood schools may often be required to enroll and claim transfer students throughout the year if there is space in the school and regardless of the circumstances of the transfer.
That means the neighborhood, non-magnet/charter high schools such as Bulkeley in Hartford, Hillhouse in New Haven, or Central in Bridgeport are always at a disadvantage because they must accept all students that come to their doors when they have space, whether a student transferred out of a magnet, neighborhood, or private school, moved from another state or country, or returned from juvenile detention hall, to name a range of possibilities. The neighborhood, non-magnet/charter, often can’t refuse to accept a transfer because they are “open enrollment” school, so to speak.
Here is a hypothetical example to explain this issue when it comes to graduation rates:
Magnet School A is an interdistrict magnet school with 100 students that enter 9th grade. Over the next four years, 50 students transferred (under a variety of circumstances) out of Magnet School A in this group and were claimed by Local Neighborhood School B.
Magnet School A doesn’t accept new students after 9th grade for various reasons such as:
- The school leadership is trying to build a certain school “culture.”
- The State doesn’t require magnet seats to be filled in later grades through its lotteries.
- The local school board doesn’t control enrollment at the interdistrict magnet school.
On commencement day, there are 50 happy graduates at Magnet School A. The State and Federal ACGR method calls this a 100% graduation rate even though the class started with 100 students in 9th grade and only graduated 50 students.
Local Neighborhood School B started with 100 students that entered the 9th grade. Over the next four years, 50 students transferred out to Adult Education Center and 50 new students transferred in from Magnet School A and were claimed by Local Neighborhood School B.
Local Neighborhood School B was required by the Superintendent to accept the 50 students from Magnet School A against objections from the School B Principal, who wanted to stabilize the enrollment and build a positive, familial culture at her school too.
On commencement day, there are 75 happy students from Local School B that graduate and get their high school diploma. According to the State and Federal method, there is a 50% graduation rate at Local Neighborhood School B.
Nevertheless, School B actually graduated 50 out of 100 students that originally came to the school in 9th grade; and on top of that, the school graduated 25 out of 50 that transferred in from Magnet School A. In the state’s formula, School B simply had 75 graduates and 75 “dropouts” or “non-graduates.”
- Local Neighborhood School B claimed 50 transfer students from Magnet School A. 25 out of 50 students that transferred out of Magnet School A into Neighborhood School B graduated. The remaining 25 never returned to school after 11th grade, so they count as “drop outs” or “non-graduates.” (Note: We don’t know how or why these students left Magnet School A originally. We just know that they officially transferred “out” and were claimed as transfers “in” to School B.)
- The 50 students that transferred out of School B “in” to Adult Education Center also count as “drop outs” or “non-graduates” from Local Neighborhood School B, even though they or their parents may have (or not) signed paperwork choosing this option.
The State and Federal ACGR formula advantages schools that control which students can enroll, as well as certain types of transfers over others. For instance, students that transfer to private schools are taken out of a cohort (counted as transfers), while transfers to Adult Education Center continue to count against a school (counted as “dropouts” or “non-graduates”). Sure, this isn’t just a magnet/charter issue either. All types of districts and schools are careful about how students are counted as transfers in or out. Indeed, suburban districts also control their school enrollment by restricting housing/zoning, in addition to other methods.
But in school districts with extensive public school choice programs, it would be helpful to understand how student movement might complicate graduation rates and comparisons between schools. We need the transfer data to understand the issue better, but CT SDE will not release this information. As a result, the adjusted cohort graduation rate for schools and districts can’t ever be verified and examined independently of the State. Furthermore, it will be difficult to determine how school choice impacts the calculation of graduation rates without this information.
In 2012, the Federal Department of Education waived parts of the No Child Left Behind Act for Connecticut. This “waiver” came with a number of conditions. One of the conditions, which Connecticut SDE volunteered, was using graduation rates as one part of a new system of ranking & rating high schools. You can see the rankings and method here.
Does using graduation rates to rank and rate high schools (and, by extension, the people that attend and work in the schools) distort the measure? (See Campbell’s Law) We know distortion happens when we use standardized test results to rank and rate schools. But what about graduation rates?
The experience in Hartford, CT may help illustrate this problem. From 2007 – 2013, graduation rates in Hartford were used as a way to calculate bonus money awards for top administrators, including the Superintendent (in U.S. Dollars $).
So what happened with graduation rates? They went up! But how did it happen?
It’s unclear entirely. There were number of factors, including dedication and efforts from students, teachers, parents, and staff, as well as a number of new initiatives.
But it’s also clear that the graduation rate measure in Hartford became distorted. How?
HPS Central Office required schools to give students in any course no lower than a 55% for any quarter in a class. So if they earned a 40% one quarter, teachers were told to change the grade to a 55%. The reason for changing grading practices has never been explained on or off the record. The HPS administration tacitly admitted the change in practice at Board committee meetings without providing a firm rationale for the change.
In fairness, there is a school of thought that believes that assigning students a 50% for a missing, incomplete, or poor assignment/performance is a fairer way of doing grades. By assigning a student a “50%” rather than a zero, the argument goes, teachers are being numerically fairer in the final calculation of a grade average. How to assign grades and the process grading of students’ work is a huge and ongoing debate. But that is for another post.
This new method of assigning numerical grades in HPS high schools very likely boosted graduation rates because students could earn only a 75% in one quarter and pass a course with a “D-/60%” without ever showing up for three quarters. (55%+55%+55%+75%/4 = 60%)
Real Hartford did a story on this a few years ago, which includes the anonymous document from HPS that explains the new grading policy. It’s another story urging caution when attaching “rewards” and “punishments” to numeric indicators.
In the end, it’s important to understand how these numbers, such as graduation rates, are produced and get as much information before drawing conclusions about the data. The numbers could be a positive sign for students in Connecticut’s towns and cities, or they can present as many questions as answers. Changes in the numbers can also signal a change in a policy or condition of the schools, as well as inflation/deflation, rather than a sure sign of success or decline.
Providing source data could be an easy fix. Information such as number of graduates, number of children in a cohort, transfers “in” and “out” for each category, and graduation rates at the school and district level could easily be updated and added to its CEDaR or the Connecticut Open Data site in real time. In the end, accountability and transparency on data must also apply to all of Connecticut’s Departments, particularly when data points become campaign talking points.