Nope. In 2010, 73 percent of DC’s high school graduates received their diploma within four years. But yesterday, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) announced that only 58.6 percent of 2011 DC graduates – from charter and traditional public schools operated by DCPS – completed high school within four years. For DC public schools alone, the figures are lower: only 53 percent graduated in four years. At some high schools, the rate is only about 40 percent. This represents a growing gap between the graduation rates at charter schools vs. traditional public schools. According to the Washington Post, “Eight in 10 charter seniors received diplomas last year, compared with slightly more than half of those in traditional schools.”
But apparently, this is good news for DCPS. Chancellor Kaya Henderson’s official press release reads: “Chancellor Henderson Applauds More Accuracy with New Graduation Rate Calculation.” (emphasis added) The reason for this optimism isn’t the fact that far too many DC schools are failing to graduate their students on time. Rather, it’s because the data now confirms it. “For years, we’ve known that our graduation rates did not accurately reflect our successes and our challenges with our high school students,” said Henderson. “With the new calculations, we have a clearer understanding of the work we still need to do, and the public has a more reliable way to hold us accountable.”
Here’s the backstory. In 2008, the US Department of Education issued regulations that required states to report graduation rates in a whole new way. For years, different calculations resulted in states, districts, schools, and other organizations reporting graduation statistics that were inaccurate and impossible to compare – and led to serious confusion among edu-nerds and the public alike. But thanks to efforts to build state longitudinal data systems, states can now track students’ progress more accurately through high school. The Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate is the result, and 2010-2011 is the first year states must use this new method: what proportion of first-time freshmen graduate with a regular high school diploma in four years, adjusting for transfers in and transfers out to other high schools or degree-granting institutions? For DC, that came out to 58.6 percent.
While a graduation rate below 60 percent is certainly not news to celebrate, the fact that the data are available and accurate is a milestone. Now that OSSE and DCPS know just how bad the problem is, it’s time for them to fix it. Unfortunately, getting the data was the easy part. Raising the graduation rate for DC schools will be much more difficult and will require a concerted, coordinated effort between administrators, teachers, parents, and the community. The District is already taking steps to ensure this will happen. Last month, DC’s City Council passed a bill to establish an early warning system to help identify students early who are at risk of dropping out. More efforts like these will be needed to get DC’s graduation rate numbers moving in the right direction again.