1) students who graduate in four years are successful
2) those who don’t are failures
Research does not validate either premise. I am an educator who has spent years teaching in conventional and alternative high schools. Currently, I am working on my doctoral dissertation and the topic is on success within alternative education, so this issue of graduation rates and how they are calculated is important to me.
Each year in education, we learn how to accommodate different learning needs so that children can be successful. Usually we assume that “success” is based on whether a child is learning and progressing toward graduation; we know that children learn at various rates and so while we would like every third, fifth, eighth, or tenth grade student to reach a certain benchmark, the Oregon Department of Education adopted a “Student Growth Model” in 2009 that is much more realistic. It looks at students as individuals and monitors their progress.
This new way of calculating graduation rates – proposed by the federal government and endorsed by our state – is in direct conflict with the Student Growth Model. It no longer looks at students as individuals. Instead, it defines a successful high school student very narrowly – as one who graduates within four years. I would argue that this definition is inaccurate and may potentially be harmful. Here are three composites (based on the stories of many students I’ve worked with over the years) to illustrate my point:
- “Mike” was a hardworking student who maintained a B average while playing sports. Unfortunately, in Mike’s tenth grade year he had a serious health issue that caused him to go in and out of the hospital for much of a semester. Needless to say, he did not do well that semester, and he struggled to catch up the rest of the year. Mike was not able to finish his high school experience within four years because of his medical issue – but he finished in four and a half years and is now a hardworking young man with a career and a family.
- “Jenny” was a bright student who worried that she would not be able to afford college. She heard about a new program (modeled after programs in NYC) that would allow her to receive an associate’s degree and her high school diploma within five years. Jenny worked very hard, maintained a GPA above 3.5, and graduated at the age of 19 ready to transfer to a university for her final two years of school. She will have a BS in a science at the age of 21.
- “Kyle” did not do well during his first year in high school. In fact, he failed most of his classes because of his poor attendance. His mother enrolled him in his district’s alternative school, which had smaller class sizes and a focus on service-learning and real-world experience through internships and Kyle thrived. He graduated five years after he first entered high school and the internship experience that he received from his school prepared him for the job market.
- “Anne” was a special education student who was born with brain development issues; doctors did not expect her to be able to learn how to read or write. Her mother worked very hard to see that Anne had a high quality education and that Anne always believed that she could do anything – her disability was not a limitation. Anne graduated within four years, but she received a modified diploma based on her IEP (Individualized Education Plan). Anne now holds a job with a childcare facility and she lives on her own. Her family is very proud of her and she loves having adult responsibilities.
I doubt that people would consider these students unsuccessful, regardless of the fact that it took them longer than the standard four years to graduate, or that those who did graduate within four years (like Anne) may not have received a standard diploma. The notion that students who graduate within four years are more successful or more prepared for life than those who don’t is based on a faulty premise. To the best of my knowledge, there is no research within our state that looks at a large cohort of students for several years beyond high school completion to determine whether the amount of time spent within high school correlates to success post-high school. The idea that students who graduate with a standard diploma within four years are more prepared for college and/or careers is ridiculous because it is based on this underlying assumption, not on facts.
In addition, by lumping together the students who take longer to graduate, who get a GED or modified diploma, or alternative certificate into the category “non-graduate,” we are doing a great disservice to our children. We equate them and their efforts to students who drop out completely and never finish. Having a high school education is very important; graduating from high school accords an individual with a certain amount of respect. By categorizing 34% of students as “non-graduates” – whether or not they actually finish high school and become successful – we are telling that portion of the population that they are failures. We are implying that we do not find them valuable, that their hard work and effort does not count. This is tragic. Our definition of “successful student” needs to change. We can begin that change by demanding a graduation rate that accurately reflects the reality within our schools – more than 66% of students complete high school.