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Christopher Scott Headshot

Signs of Progress or Just More Spin?

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For the academic school year 2009/2010, Denver Public Schools achieved a graduation rate of 51.8%, up by approximately 5% from the year before. Of course, when this apparent success was announced, DPS celebrated. But this celebration was probably misguided, as the numbers themselves tell a much starker story.

I think of graduation rates as the ultimate indicator of school system success. Graduating students is the hoped-for end product of every school system. Everything a school district does should lead ultimately to graduating students from high school. Those students should be ready for the next step in life, whatever that may be.

2010 was a watershed year for DPS. It marked the 5-year anniversary of The Denver Plan, a document detailing the hoped for outcomes associated with DPS' reform efforts. When the Colorado Department of Education released graduation rates for Colorado's school districts, the numbers validate what I have suspected since The Denver Plan's inception: very little is improving in our schools.

To be sure, the jump in DPS' graduation rate was significant, since the 2008/2009 school year's rate was approximately 46%. By any measure, 51.8% is better than 46%. DPS claims its rate of graduation grew more than any other school district in Colorado. That may or may not be true. I didn't look, but I did look at what the numbers are really telling us.

As with all things related to education, calculating graduation rates is not as simple as it would appear on the surface. Last year, the Colorado Department of Education changed how grad rates are assessed. Essentially, we have two different ways of calculating graduation rates in Colorado: (1) on-time graduation rates (students who graduate 4 years after beginning 9th grade) and (2) graduation rates for all students in the system (all high school graduates leaving the system, regardless of the time it took to graduate).

Of course, if we are going to compare grad rates from year to year, we have to use rates that were calculated using the same method ...and, of course, the numbers used in the press do not allow for this comparison. Fortunately, however, CDE provides rates using both the "new" and "old" method for calculating the percent of students who graduate. These data are provided on the CDE website, here.

In 2005, when Michael Bennet wrote the first iteration of The Denver Plan, graduation rates were a big concern across the District just like they are today. The 2005 Denver Plan set a goal of increasing graduation rates by 5% each year.

Based on this goal, DPS' graduation rate for 2010 should be 20 percentage points higher than it was at the end of the 2005/2006 school year, when the grad rate was 51.7%. However, DPS graduated 53% of all its students in 2010. Using CDE's new system, the DPS graduation rate was 51.8%. (That's the rate you probably read in the Denver Post.)

All told, DPS has improved its graduation rate by 1.3% in 5 years. (Restrain yourself from throwing confetti.) Worse yet are what other indicators tell us about the future academic success for Denver's students.

Between the 2005/2006 school year and the 2009/2010 school year, the percent of DPS graduates needing to take remedial course work at the collegiate level has increased from 46% to 59%. (See district remediation rates reported on EdNews Colorado.)

This means simply that, for every 100 DPS graduates going to college, 59 will have to take remedial coarse work to succeed at the collage level. Of course, remedial classes increase the cost for DPS students to attend college because the student gets to pay college tuition rates to review high school level material.

Further, the remediation rates suggest that, while DPS has been able to maintain its graduation rate over the past 5 years, the academic value of a DPS diploma has diminished.

Think of it this way: if the academic rigor associated with graduation requirements is dumbed down, you would expect to see an increase in the amount of remedial course work a student must take upon entering college. That is exactly what is happening to DPS students: over the past 5 years, about 50% of students graduate from DPS but an increasing number of those students need remedial classes to succeed in college.

All of these data are aggregate, however. To get an understanding of how poorly DPS serves its primary population, minority students, one has to go inside the numbers a bit more.

Data Point Whites African Americans Latino
Grad rate 61% 54% 47%
CSAP Reading Proficiency 76% 45% 40%
CSAP Writing Proficiency 62% 29% 26%
CSAP Math Proficiency 63% 28% 32%
CSAP proficiency percentiles are based on all students taking the CSAP in DPS.

These numbers are particularly disappointing, as improving the academic performance of minority students has been a particular focus of The Denver Plan. Clearly, the achievement gap between whites, African Americans and Latinos is far from closed.

Of course, Denver's success was celebrated in the recent State of the Union address. For all of President Obama's happy talk about 86% of students graduating from Bruce Randolph, this graduation rate means little to the overall District's performance. Why? Well, Bruce Randolph graduated just 73 students. The same is true for DSST, which graduated 81% of its students, but only 67 students in total.

As for the argument that these schools are better at graduating students than their larger, traditional school cousins, this argument is pretty much debunked by the state-wide graduation report, too.

School Name Number of Students Graduated Percent Graduated
East High School 405 81%
Kennedy High School 207 77%
Montebello High School 221 56%
North High School 155 64%
South High School 215 62%
Thomas Jefferson High School 199 78%
West High School 119 48%

All numbers are reported using CDE's new method for calculating graduation rates.

Yes, Bruce Randolph and DSST graduated a greater percentage of students, but I'd like to see DSST serve all 221 students at Montbello High School.

Manual High School, the site of DPS' most strong handed attempts at school reform, is the only neighborhood high school failing to graduate any of it seniors. Of course, there were only 2 seniors eligible for graduation at Manual thanks to the District's never ending turnaround plans for that school.

Looking at these numbers, I found myself asking, why is DPS' graduation rate so low? After all, all of high schools above graduate a greater percentage of students than the District average. Well, the answer is not hard to see when you look at the data on a school-by-school basis.

Overall, DPS' charters and alternative schools manage to achieve a graduation rate of about 20%. (This number includes DSST.)

For all the talk of school choice, competition, teacher accountability, and pay for performance, nothing much is changing in DPS, at least that is what the numbers tell us. After 5 years of school reform Denver style, I find myself asking, Where's the beef? Our version of school reform seems like a lot of big, fluffy bun.