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Thompson: The Good, Bad, & Ugly of Chicago Grad Rate Improvements

The Atlantic's Kate Grossman, in What Schools Will Do to Keep Students on Track, asks the right questions, draws on some of the world's best social science research, reports on all sides of the key questions, and gives insights into whether Chicago's increase in graduation rates will be sustainable.

Even if I hadn't personally witnessed the benefits of my school's Freshman Team, I would still perk up and listen when a Consortium on Chicago School Research (CCSR) scholar endorses efforts to help students transition into high school, saying “I’ve been arguing against silver bullets my whole career—but this is one.”

Even better, the CCSR has found more evidence of "a direct link between improved freshmen pass rates and dramatically improved graduation rates." Best of all, it studied "20 schools that had early success improving their on-track rates [and] did not find widespread gaming by principals eager to make their schools look good."

If data is used for diagnostic purposes, and real interventions by caring mentors are offered each step of the way in helping students to overcome failure, perhaps the single best approach to school improvement is helping students progress through school. Teachers should be able to "turn to the school’s 'care team,' which finds ways to get kids more intensive help." The team should help students "make up assignments they blew off or didn’t understand," and as long as extensions on deadline aren't "endless," everyone can benefit.

But, what happens when promoting power metrics and graduation rates are incorporated into formal or informal accountability systems?

Although Grossman gives evidence that Chicago's efforts are often implemented in an honest, caring, and effective manner, she also provides troubling evidence to the contrary. She writes:

The local National Public Radio affiliate, in partnership with Chicago’s Better Government Association, found that dropouts were being mislabeled at some schools to make it seem like a higher percentage of students were graduating. The impact wouldn’t be enough to undercut the larger narrative—graduation rates have increased by double digits—but the revelations bolster anecdotal evidence that some number rigging is going on.

Even more disturbing is evidence that "once Chicago began pushing for higher freshmen pass rates, teachers started to complain that school administrators were cheating by doctoring attendance records and inflating grades." Grossman describes a school where students often cut their first and last periods, and administrators "frequently" change absences marked by teachers as “unexcused” to “school function.” Even with the changes, at that school "nearly 60 percent of the school’s students had unexcused absences from more than 100 classes each." As one teacher commented,  “It’s all data-driven and whatever they can do—lie, fudge, and steal—they’ll do to get the numbers up,”

Chicago uses a "no zero" grading system, which is something that I once advocated for, but which can also backfire disastrously. Used properly, limiting the lowest grade a student can get to a 50 is fair and sensible. The same applies to credit recovery programs and giving students repeated chances to "work off" absences. But, when all three policies are combined in an era of data-driven accountability, the result is likely to be catastrophic. Especially when administrators are pressured to make stats look good, the combination of the three policies are an invitation for students to cut class at will. 

In Chicago, the inspector general has already found a student who had unexcused absences for 381 separate classes which amount to 54 full school days, but his transcript showed 21 unexcused absence days.

In my school, we saw the same patterns which Grossman now reports. The single best policy intervention I witnessed in my 20-year career was our Freshman Academy.  By the spring of 2006, among the freshmen who attended school frequently enough to take five of the six Benchmark Tests,
reading scores rose to an average 7.6 grade-level.  But, those students only represented 35% of the 173 ninth graders.

The problem was the more challenging students: the 2/3rds of students who missed two or more tests read at an average grade level of 5.7. And, the ways that we had to deal with absenteeism in order to try to meet NCLB targets included the tricks that appear to be used in Chicago today. 

We adopted an alphabet soup of attendance code changes which allowed for the widespread dropping of absences. Once students realized they could cut class anytime they wanted, and the parade of "hall walkers" grew out of control, the students who came to school but who did not go to class created an even greater epidemic of violence and anarchy.

Later, I was one of the teachers who volunteered to use our "Zeroes Are Prohibited" (ZAP) program and record no grade lower than a fifty, in return for a better (not perfect, but better) effort by the administration to get absenteeism under control. But, it only took one student putting pencil to paper to learn that, starting in March, a B student could cut every class for the rest of the year and still be mathematically guaranteed to pass - as long as the unexcused absenteeism rules weren't enforced.

Even after the word spread throughout the school, most students voluntarily attended most classes. But, even if it was only 1/5th of the students eligible to cut constantly who took advantage of it, the combination of those policies drove us to the bottom of the state's high schools in student performance.

I don't know the story of the first 20 Chicago schools studied by the CCSR and how they maximized the benefits of policies designed to increase graduation increases and why they led to an increase in ACT test scores. The question, however, is whether they are sustainable in an age of data-driven accountability.

My intuition tells me that some teachers and administrators will remain true to their commitment to assist students and not give into the temptation for the wholesale fabrication of data. Some principals will be as extreme as previous administrators in "passing kids on." For most schools, it is likely to be "deja vu all over again," with an increase in "juking stats. Some of the students in those schools will benefit from sticking it out until they are granted a high school diploma, while others will learn the wrong lessons and have destructive behaviors reinforced, making it even harder for those at-risk kids to function in the adult world.-JT(@drjohnthompson)


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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in This Week In Education are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.