By Mark Nolan
The good news for the New York State Education Department, and the sobering news for the rest of us, is that state taxpayers remain mostly blinded by educational obfuscations like the high school graduation rate.
The SED released 2022 graduation rates last month, and the percentage of students who collected diplomas on Long Island crept up slightly last year, to 92.6 percent.
Long Island has a higher graduation rate than almost any other region in America. If we were a state, we would have the highest graduation rate in the nation.
“Wow!” you say. “Long Island schools are second to none!”
Hold on to your mortarboard.
If the graduation rate helps rank schools and compare graduating classes, why complain? It’s an easy way to see if your high school did better or worse than last year. It also tells you how your school compares with others.
It’s also a remarkably misleading statistic that is sometimes abused for less-than-ethical purposes.
On the surface, graduation rate is simple, determined by dividing the number of students who graduate by the total number of eligible students. But there are all sorts of inside-baseball statistics — such as cohort graduation vs. on-time graduation — that the Education Department, and superintendents around the state, jumble, mix and match in an effort to figure out how to get more diplomas in the hands of teens.
The statistics themselves aren’t insidious. Numbers are simply tools. It’s the use of the graduation rate to determine school rankings and state funding that makes it so odious. Even worse is what some educators will do to boost the rate.
Ask a high school teacher how many times he or she has been queried by an administrator:
“What does this kid need to graduate?”
“Can we give her extra credit?”
“How many points does he need?”
“He’s worked so hard all year — surely there must be something that can be done.”
It’s a confidence game. Nudge the numbers, appeal to a teacher’s good intentions, and the graduation rate ticks upward.
Floor grades are a neat trick. The intent of a floor grade — a number that can’t dip below 55 or 45, depending on attendance — is to give students a fighting chance to pass a class.
Consider this scenario without a floor grade: A student fails the first two quarters of a class with abysmal grades of 12 and 15 — more common than you might think — so it becomes statistically impossible to pass for the year. The student realizes this, completely gives up, and becomes a discipline problem.
Giving the student a floor grade means that he or she only has to get a grade of 75 for each of the last two quarters to pass the class. The student sees light at the end of the tunnel, and becomes a model learner.
Alas, crafty students immediately figure out the floor-grade scam. Some students take it as a fall-quarter extension of summer break — while other students bemoan the benefit given to slackers. Floor grades reward laziness and diminish the quality of education needed to graduate.
Floor grades aren’t universally used or required, and there are no state or nationwide regulations. Some schools implement them at the end of the marking period. A grade of 32 miraculously jumps to 55. Other schools prohibit teachers from uploading any grade below 55 for any assignment. A student who does not a jot of work all of September still gets a 55.
See you on the podium in June, Jimmy!
Then there are credit-recovery programs — kids on Chromebooks after school for a few weeks, punching keys to earn class credits — and summer school. Ask a high school administrator what their summer school pass-fail rate is. Derelict students somehow evolve into scholars in the span of six weeks.
Obviously, not every student slacks, not every teacher fudges and not every administrator nudges. But let’s be honest about loopholes.
Graduation rate can’t measure rigor. Parents largely want their children’s diplomas to mean something more than a number. Graduation rate doesn’t emphasize philosophy, critical thinking or scientific theory.
So, by all means, toast the graduates this spring with a glass of sparkling cider — and a shot of reality. Not all diplomas are equal, and that graduation rate may be hiding some of your high school’s flaws.
Mark Nolan, the editor of the Lynbrook/East Rockaway and Malverne/West Hempstead Heralds, taught high school English for 11 years. Comments? MNolan@liherald.com.