If you want a quick, clear look at the story behind the awesometastic grad rate miracle rate of 81%, this NPR piece from Anya Kanenetz is a good place to start (it's also pretty).
Kamanetz boils down the possible explanations to three:
2) Making it easier
The intervention option is clearly the best one. But it is also expensive and time-consuming. So it's no wonder that many districts resort to 2 and 3. We don't have them in these parts, but I keep hearing about recovery credits, which sound suspiciously like cheap extra credit/makeup work projects that allow schools to say a student passed a course. Beyond the official institutional ways to lower the bar, most teachers have also encountered the unofficial approach-- the one where a guidance counselor or a principal or a special ed department head calls you in to explain why you need to offer some extra credit or make-up work or just plain re-compute your final grades in order to achieve the desired result for Chris McSadstudent.
The article also notes that Texas has miraculous improvements in graduation rate, which we can just add to the list of Texas miracles that aren't (like miraculous economic growth or their earlier education miracles). But many states have figured out how to make students disappear before they can hurt the numbers.
I don't dispute the value of graduation rate as a measure of How Well We're Doing. Well, I don't dispute it as long as we change one simple thing.
Why, exactly, is the four year part important?
I have taught so many students sooooooo many students who struggled and finally got a handle on things or broke through to understanding or just plain grew up enough that after a tough start in high school, they finally graduated-- proudly and honestly. But they did it in four years. So they don't count.
Here's Pat, who was a hellion in ninth grade and couldn't focus and was defiant and tried to Teach The School a Lesson by flunking everything on purpose. And then sometime around birthday #16, Pat just settled down and figured it out. But by then Pat was a year behind. Pat graduates in five years.
Here's Chris, who was basically homeless until age fifteen. Chris spent two years in ninth grade because there was nobody at home to get Chris to school more than two days a week. But Chris's mom finally got a job and a car and a stable relationship, and Chris did great work in 10th, 11th and 12th grade, graduating in the middle of the class. But Chris did it in five years.
Here's Sam, who decided that cyber school sounded pretty cool. Sam left for cyberia three months into tenth grade, and the entire rest of the year was a wash, and Sam was soon back in public school, where a repeat of tenth grade was necessary to get back to speed. Sam, now convinced there was no alternative except to make public school work out, finished strong. But in five years.
All of these students, on reports of graduation rate, count exactly the same as Hunter, who lost the path forward and just plain dropped out, never to return, never to graduate.
The problem with the four-year graduation rate is the same as with many other reformy measures-- it can't be easily fixed by legitimate means, it doesn't count circumstances that really are wins (see above examples), and it carries high stakes for the individual schools. Put it all together, and you have a high motivation to fudge, game, and cheat the system.
We really-- REALLY-- need a conversation about why, exactly, we believe that someone who takes five (or even six) years to successfully complete high school is a problem or a failure. Why is it so crucial that students graduate by a certain timetable-- and why is that actually MORE important than whether they graduate with a full education or not?
Let's keep counting the graduates, but let's stop counting the years.