Education Week - February 28, 2018 - 7
Pressure to Graduate Failing Students Is Felt Nationwide
By Catherine Gewertz
The headlines made a big splash, and yet
they were strangely familiar: Another school
system was reporting a higher graduation rate
than it deserved.
The most recent scandal-in the District
of Columbia-is just the latest example in
a growing case file of school systems where
investigators have uncovered bogus graduation-rate practices.
Those revelations have unleashed a wave of
questions about the pressures and incentives
built into U.S. high schools, and fueled nagging
doubts that states' rising high school graduation rates-and the country's current all-timehigh rate of 84 percent-aren't what they seem.
The newest round of reflections was triggered
by an investigation, ordered by the D.C. mayor's
office, that found that 34 percent of last year's
senior class got diplomas even though they'd
missed too much school to earn passing grades,
or acquired too many credits through quick,
online courses known as credit recovery. Only
three months earlier, the school system touted
a 20-point rise in its graduation rate over the
last six years.
"It's been devastating," said Cathy Reilly, the
executive director of the Senior High Alliance
of Parents, Principals, and Educators, a group
that focuses on high school issues in the District of Columbia. "It's made people here feel
that our graduation rate gains weren't real."
A National Problem
Such revelations are hardly confined to the
nation's capital. In the last few years, a federal audit found that California and Alabama
inflated their graduation rates by counting
students they shouldn't have counted. News
media investigations showed that educators
persuaded low-performing students in Atlanta
and Orlando, Fla., to transfer to private or alternative schools to eliminate a drag on their
home schools' graduation rates.
The drumbeat of graduation-rate fudging
has opened the door to renewed attacks on
the pressures imposed on schools by accountability rules, particularly the high stakes that
some systems attach to specific metrics. In the
District of Columbia, for instance, high school
teachers and principals are evaluated in part on
how many students pass courses and graduate.
With those kinds of stakes, teachers can
feel immense pressure to award passing
grades to students who haven't earned them,
a dilemma that intensifies in schools with
high rates of chronic absenteeism and academically struggling students.
In a survey of 616 District of Columbia teachers conducted after the scandal broke, 47 percent said they'd felt pressured or coerced into
giving grades that didn't accurately reflect
what students had learned. Among high school
teachers, that number rose to 60 percent. More
than 2 in 10 said that their grades or attendance data had been changed by someone else
after teachers submitted them.
Scott Goldstein oversaw the survey as the
founder of EmpowerEd, a year-old coalition
of D.C. teachers that works to strengthen
teacher leadership. To him, the results cry
out for a new conversation about the "moral
dilemmas" embedded in accountability systems that rely heavily on just a few metrics,
like graduation rates.
"If you pass students [who haven't completed
course requirements], you're leading them into
a world they're unprepared for. But if you fail
them, you're harming their lives in other ways,"
said Goldstein, a social studies teacher at Roosevelt High School. Teachers' decisions should
rest on a professional appraisal of student mastery, not on fear for their own jobs, he said.
In the wake of the scandal, D.C. school
leaders have removed graduation and coursepassing rates from principals' and teachers'
Pressure From the Top
Even in school systems that don't reward or
penalize educators for their schools' accountability metrics, teachers can feel immense pressure
from administrators on their grading practices.
In postings on social media, Education Week
asked high school teachers if they'd ever felt
pressure to give passing grades to students
who hadn't done the work.
"Never mind high school. I feel that pressure
in 3rd grade," said Annie, an elementary school
teacher in central Virginia. She asked Education Week not to identify her so she could discuss sensitive issues.
She said her principal has cautioned her
not to fail a student or recommend repeating
a grade because she "doesn't want anyone to
feel bad about not succeeding." When she gave
a student a D recently, she was summoned to a
meeting with the principal, Annie said.
"She was upset. She said, 'Why didn't you
work harder to get the student to turn in missing work, or re-do work?' She sees a D as a
teacher's failure," Annie recalled. "But I think
it's a disservice to kids to give them grades they
John R. Tibbetts, who teaches economics at
Worth County High School in rural Sylvester,
Ga., and is the state's 2018 teacher of the year,
said his district's policy doesn't include coursefailure rates in teachers' evaluations. But his
principal recently sent teachers an email conveying word from their superintendent that
"failure rates ... will be taken into consideration" in their evaluations anyway. (The principal did not respond to requests for comment
by Education Week's print deadline.)
Tibbetts said he would like to replace that
"threatening" posture with a more collaborative one.
Education advocates who believe accountability can be a force for good worry that graduation-rate scandals could tarnish a tool that
sheds light on inequities and applies pressure
for school improvement.
They hope, instead, that uncovering problems can spark a rebalancing of the pressures
and supports built into accountability systems,
and change school practice to respond better to
issues like students' poor academic skills and
"We shouldn't stop paying attention to high
school grad rates, or not have them in accountability systems," said Michael Cohen, the
president of Achieve, which works with states
to raise academic expectations. "The right response to all of this is to double down on efforts
to support students, and to support teachers,
early and consistently, so they're not pressured
to game the system and they can give kids
what they need."
Experts who study and track graduation
rates acknowledge that in some places, the
rates are inflated by cheating or inaccurate
reporting. But they contend that those cases
account for a tiny share of schools overall.
Robert Balfanz, a Johns Hopkins University
researcher who studies graduation rates, estimates that those cases account for 2 to 4 percentage points in the national graduation rate.
'Hard-Earned Gains' Are Real
John Bridgeland, the chief executive officer
of Civic Enterprises, a think tank that studies
graduation rates for the annual "Grad Nation"
reports, said his team has visited dozens of
schools to find out what they're doing to produce significant graduation-rate gains.
In a few places, he said, he and his colleagues have had to shave 2 to 4 percentage
points off the rates districts were reporting
because they were improperly counting some
types of students who shouldn't be included,
such as those who started home schooling in
their junior year of high school.
EDUCATORS WEIGH IN
Teachers responded on social media to an Education
Week posting asking if they'd ever felt pressure to give
passing grades to students who hadn't done the work.
I will NEVER recommend
a student pass any class
not worked toward stand
based, content ma
any class. However, som
teachers use inappropria
rigor and grading
... It's sometimes hard for
administrator to challen
claim a teacher [di
those standards, but thi
professional decision res
for classroom teach
end of the day, staff have
ensure they hold students
- JEREMY W. HURD,
Principal of McLaughlin High
But with few exceptions, Bridgeland said, his
team has found that "the hard work" of better instruction and student support explains
higher graduation rates.
"We need to call out the problems when gaming or cheating appears," he said. "But at the
same time, taking isolated examples of gaming
the system and saying that high school grad
rates are not real diminishes and undermines
the many schools, districts, and states that
have hard-earned gains and clear progress to
showcase," he said.
Those who study graduation-rate calculations
point out that while they're still imperfect,
they've been much more reliable since 2008
when federal regulations began requiring all
schools to calculate them the same way-the
portion of each freshman class that earns regular diplomas four years later.
Balfanz said that more stringent calculation
and reporting requirements "without a doubt"
have been responsible for a very real rise in
states' graduation rates.
People don't remember the bad days before 2008, when schools were allowed to
measure graduation rates however they
wanted," he said. "K ids dropped out,
schools would code them as 'whereabouts
unknown,' not as a dropout. No one knew,
and no one cared. That wasn't a good place.
Accountability makes schools pay attention
to a key outcome, like graduating our kids
from high school."
But even those experts acknowledge that
there are still too many hidden variations in
how states report graduation rates. To get a
more accurate understanding of the rates,
they've identified about a dozen variations
that should be identified and handled in
uniform ways. For example, even though
federal rules don't allow states to count
summer graduates, or those who earn high
school equivalency certificates, some do.
Some schools include students in juvenile
justice facilities or those who "transfer" into
Our principal sent us a no
tice that said:
'I met with the superinten
dent yesterday about ou
academic progress ... He
made me aware that failur
rates should be taken int
o consideration during the
[evaluation] process. ...
Please closely monitor yo
failure rates and ensure
that all is being done for
your students to keep tho
se rates low.'
Our teachers can read be
tween the lines."
- JOHN R.TIBBETTS,
Economics teacher, Worth Cou
School, Sylvester, Ga.
I have been pressured not to fail students
who miss 20-plus of the 45 days in a quarter.
... My colleague was 'reminded' that we are a firstyear school, and that it 'wouldn't look good' ... if a
large number of kids failed."
- A teacher in a new alternative school
EDUCATION WEEK | February 28, 2018 | www.edweek.org | 7
Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Education Week - February 28, 2018
Education Week - February 28, 2018
News in Brief
Computer Science for All: Can Schools Make It Happen?
Pressure to Graduate Failing Students Is Felt Nationwide
U.K. Curriculum Import Becoming Increasingly Popular
Missouri Tackles Challenge of Dyslexia Screening, Services
Lost Sense of School As a Safe Place
Grief and Rage Drive Students To Demand Changes to Gun Laws
A Florida City Forever Changed
Lockdown Drills Prompt Fear, Stress After Parkland
A Long Journey Ahead Seen For Survivors of Shooting
On Social Media, Teens Witness, Grieve, Organize
Legal Issues Loom for District In Shooting’s Wake
One State’s Dive Into K-12 Aid Figures
States Confront ESSA Mandate on Spending Transparency
Several Ed. Dept. Offices Target of Reorganization
Trump Seeks Ed. Dept. Budget Cuts
The Editors: What Should Betsy DeVos Prioritize?
Margaret Spellings: Higher Education
Marilyn Anderson Rhames: Teacher Quality
Karla Phillips: Personalization
Maddie Fennell: Leadership by Example
Shaun M. Dougherty: Career and Tech Ed
Mike Tenbusch : The ‘Have Nots’
Rafiq R. Kalam Id-Din II: Racial-Equity Agenda
Erin McGrath: Lack of Choice
TopSchoolJobs Recruitment Marketplace
Jerrod Wheeler: Impact Aid Is a Lifeline for Military-Connected Kids
Education Week - February 28, 2018 - Education Week - February 28, 2018
Education Week - February 28, 2018 - 2
Education Week - February 28, 2018 - 3
Education Week - February 28, 2018 - Report Roundup
Education Week - February 28, 2018 - 5
Education Week - February 28, 2018 - Computer Science for All: Can Schools Make It Happen?
Education Week - February 28, 2018 - Pressure to Graduate Failing Students Is Felt Nationwide
Education Week - February 28, 2018 - U.K. Curriculum Import Becoming Increasingly Popular
Education Week - February 28, 2018 - Missouri Tackles Challenge of Dyslexia Screening, Services
Education Week - February 28, 2018 - Lost Sense of School As a Safe Place
Education Week - February 28, 2018 - Grief and Rage Drive Students To Demand Changes to Gun Laws
Education Week - February 28, 2018 - A Florida City Forever Changed
Education Week - February 28, 2018 - 13
Education Week - February 28, 2018 - Lockdown Drills Prompt Fear, Stress After Parkland
Education Week - February 28, 2018 - A Long Journey Ahead Seen For Survivors of Shooting
Education Week - February 28, 2018 - Legal Issues Loom for District In Shooting’s Wake
Education Week - February 28, 2018 - 17
Education Week - February 28, 2018 - States Confront ESSA Mandate on Spending Transparency
Education Week - February 28, 2018 - Several Ed. Dept. Offices Target of Reorganization
Education Week - February 28, 2018 - Trump Seeks Ed. Dept. Budget Cuts
Education Week - February 28, 2018 - 21
Education Week - February 28, 2018 - Maddie Fennell: Leadership by Example
Education Week - February 28, 2018 - Erin McGrath: Lack of Choice
Education Week - February 28, 2018 - Letters
Education Week - February 28, 2018 - 25
Education Week - February 28, 2018 - TopSchoolJobs Recruitment Marketplace
Education Week - February 28, 2018 - 27
Education Week - February 28, 2018 - Jerrod Wheeler: Impact Aid Is a Lifeline for Military-Connected Kids
Education Week - February 28, 2018 - CW1
Education Week - February 28, 2018 - CW2
Education Week - February 28, 2018 - CW3
Education Week - February 28, 2018 - CW4