Last Wednesday, Governor Dannel Malloy and Education Commission Diana Wentzel held a press conference at James Hillhouse High School in New Haven to announce that the state’s 4-year graduation rate “reached an all-time high.”
More specifically, over the past five years, 4-percent more high school students graduated on time. At the state’s 10 highest-need school districts, the rate increased by 9 percent — all great news, but, what does that actually mean?
A tweet by Education Post’s Director Of Outreach and External Affairs and Minnesota-based education advocate Chris Stewart got me thinking about the state Department of Education latest back-patting session:
Be suspicious of accolades about rising graduation rates in places where college readiness rates a very low.
— Citizen Stewart (@citizenstewart) April 13, 2017
While I’m not sure what school district or system he was referring to (or, if he was even referring to a specific case at all), his observation rings all too true in Connecticut, which has an awful track record for college readiness, particularly for low-income and students of color. Let us not forget that in September Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher ruled in the groundbreaking CCJEF v. Rell school funding case that the state’s graduation requirements were unconstitutional, likening them to a dissolving “sugar-cube boat.”
In his scathing 90-page ruling Moukawsher wrote: “State graduation and advancement standards are so loose that in struggling cities the neediest are leaving schools with diplomas but without the education, we promise them.” Nothing drove that point home more than when former Bridgeport Superintendent Fran Rabinowitz testified during the trial that a student could, theoretically, graduate from Bridgeport Public Schools illiterate.
What Does The Data Say About College Enrollment?
The governor chose Hillhouse to make his announcement because the graduation rate increased by a whopping 25 percent, making it the second a largest jump in graduation rate across the state. Quite a feat for a school that’s been struggling for years.
The graph above is from the National Student Clearinghouse student tracking report for 2016. It looks at the number of students who enrolled in college within a year of graduating from high school. (Please note: This report was generated in November. It’s possible that the number of students for 2016 may have changed if students enrolled in the spring semester).
While many more Hillhouse students are graduating in four years, the total number of students going on to attend college hasn’t gone up all that much. Since 2011, only four more Hillhouse students enrolled in college after high school. There’s certainly been a positive trend, but not quite what the graduation rates would suggest. Overall, over the past eight years, 30 more students have gone on to college, but the percentage of students enrolling in college is down.
Of course, one school does not make a trend. Here’s the enrollment rate at Windham High School for 2016:
According to the data released by the State Department of Education, Windham Public Schools, another alliance district, saw a 14 percent graduation rate jump, however, there was,again, no significant increases in college enrollment. The same goes for Bridgeport’s Bassick High School. At Bassick, the graduation rate went from 47 percent to 60, but the number of students who enrolled in college the year after graduating went up by 2 students in eight years.
Are Students Graduating High School Prepared?
The question of whether there has been an improvement in college preparation is harder to pinpoint.
Enrollment is being tracked every year, but the most recent available data for remedial coursework is from the class of 2011. The state also only tracks Connecticut students attending state and community college, excluding UConn.
While it’s incomplete, the information that is available is damning. Almost half of all Connecticut students attending state or community colleges have to take one or more remedial classes, and if you disaggregate the data by race, it’s an even starker picture. Around 64 percent of Black and Hispanic students enroll in remedial classes, which is much higher rate than their white peers (37 percent).
If you look, for example, at Waterbury Public Schools, where all but one high school showed improved graduation rates, in 2011, over 70 percent of Waterbury graduates who enrolled in college had to take remedial classes. This, however, doesn’t necessarily mean anything for the most recent graduates. What is telling is annual testing results, which showed that only 33 percent of high schools students met or exceed grade-level goals in English Language Arts and only 9 percent in Math.
It’s not just Waterbury, the student achievement data in Bridgeport, Windham, New Haven and other low-performing districts doesn’t align with the increase in graduation rates. This was the basis for why Judge Moukawsher ruled the school system didn’t fulfill its promise. Here’s an excerpt from the CCJEF ruling:
“The facts are incontestable. Test scores show that high schools in impoverished cities are graduating high percentages of their students without basic literacy and numeracy skill the schools promise. Recent CAPT test results show that one out of three high school children in Bridgeport, Windham, New Britain and similar communities did not reach even the most basic levels in math and only did modestlyy better in reading… yet Bridgeport has a high school graduation rate of over 70%…”
In part, the reason graduation rates are increasing at Connecticut’s Alliance district schools is a 2010 law that required districts with high dropout rates to allow students to take alternative credit recovery courses. These courses have kept more students in school, but have had the unintended consequence of watering down graduation standards.
In his ruling, Judge Moukawsher recommended the state strengthen standards, but so far, Connecticut has done little. In fact, the only substantial thing the State Department of Education has done is recommend the state Board of Education undermine accountability by removing test scores from teacher evaluations; a measure they passed a few weeks ago.
While the graduation data may seem like a win, I think Stewart is right. We should be skeptical. Graduation rates may be rapidly rising in the state’s highest-need schools, but this “win” is meaningless if schools aren’t actually preparing kids for college.