Educating for Democracy: 'The Numbers Game'

06/12/2015 10:22 pm ET | Updated Jun 12, 2016

After hearing the "good news" of the high school graduation rate nationally -- over 81 percent -- I recalled a blog I wrote for Huffington Post four years ago.

A recent article in the New York Times (2/8) reveals that according to a report by the New York State Department of Education, only 23 percent of New York City students graduated "ready for college or careers in 2009.

Bad as that news seems to be, that figure doesn't include the considerable number of special-education students, in which case the college ready percentage would be even lower. This should come as no surprise to the proponents of Mayor Bloomberg's school reform.

I cited this as an example of the way in which the "numbers game" can be played. According to Bloomberg, graduation rates had climbed from 50 percent to 66 percent in the previous six years during his administration and yet evidence shows that regardless of these numbers many of the students who had received high school diplomas were not getting the education that would equip them for college-level work. At the time, there was strong criticism of these numbers by the City comptroller:

Who is taking the city to task over the way it grants diplomas to high school students. In an audit released today, William C. Thompson Jr. -- who's also a candidate for mayor, keep in mind -- finds that schools keep sloppy records of whether students have actually met graduation requirements.

An alert he released to the press before a news conference today said the audit found that high school graduation rates may not have improved as much as the City claims.

My article went on:

When faced with the threat of school closings, loss of jobs and other penalties to schools whose problems have far less to do with poor teaching than with poor families and poor support for needed resources by the Department of Education, it should be obvious that teachers and administrators will do anything they can to push through as many under-educated students as possible to improve graduation rates.

One such abused practice is credit recovery, a way of watering down graduation requirements by accepting dubious writing and other assignments as equivalent to passing Regents exams.

Now, it seems that once more "the numbers game" is being played on the public, but this time, some investigative reporting has uncovered the "real story." Following are excerpts from a report on NPR several days ago that once again reminds the public that "numbers can lie," or, to be more charitable, "distort." Not only in N.Y.C., but nationally.

Officially, the U.S. has a high school graduation rate of 81 percent -- a historic high. But our months-long investigation, in partnership with reporters at 14 member stations, reveals that this number should be taken with a big grain of salt. We found states, cities and districts pursuing a range of strategies to improve the grad rate.

Some are mislabeling students or finding ways of moving them off the books. In Chicago, reports Becky Vevea of WBEZ, "the district is misclassifying hundreds of students who enroll in its alternative schools." District officials say that they're investigating the issue.

Schools in places like Detroit and Camden, N.J., are making it easier to get a diploma. In all, 21 states offer alternative, sometimes much easier, paths to graduation.

On the other hand, there was some good news:

In Des Moines, Iowa, and suburban Atlanta, we found schools digging in and actually giving students the long-term support required to raise the grad rate for real.

'Researchers talk about the ABCs: attendance, behavior and course performance, which reliably predict graduation as early as third grade. The Everyone Graduates Center and Civic Enterprises have published influential studies (funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which also funds coverage at NPR, including education) of the four major reasons teenagers leave school without a degree.

1. A minority, they found, were really unable to cut it academically.
2. For many, life issues got in the way, such as pregnancy, incarceration or health problems. Some had missed too many days. Some had to work to support their families.
3. Poignantly, a large group of students said that they felt bored, frustrated or disillusioned; this process was dubbed "fadeout."
4. Others were made unwelcome at school because of behavior or other issues; they were victims of "pushout," as the phenomenon came to be known.

Stiil, the report said, there are ways to improve student learning ( or, unfortunately, student testing), that are being tried in different areas of the country such as early intervention.

So, for school systems that want to raise graduation rates, the first evidence-based strategy to try is early intervention. Technology helps here -- nothing fancy, just databases enabling teachers to identify students early and track them as they move from elementary through high school.

Georgia created a program that assigned graduation coaches to students throughout their high school years (the program has since been defunded by the state).

Portland, Ore., is intervening as early as preschool, based on research showing that it improves the high school graduation rate for low-income students down the line.

To combat fadeout, school systems like Cleveland have created a portfolio model. The thinking here is that if students have access to schools that match their interests -- say, in the sciences or the arts -- they'll stay more engaged which requires courses that are: 'More experiential or outdoors or student-driven, for the artist or the tinkerer,' says Nettie Legters, a longtime dropout researcher at Johns Hopkins University.

Unfortunately, the pressure to play the "numbers game" has a tendency to subvert the process of experimentation and some freedom of action to enable teachers to learn the best ways of teaching by being willing to fail and use failures as a learning tool. There is little, if any, room for learning through failure under the present system.

I recently received a book by a former teacher in the Texas school system who has recorded his experiences as a high school teacher and program administrator. Unfortunately, he had to print the book under a pseudonym for fear of reprisal although he has now left the system. Under the name "George Bailey," the book --The Catastrophic Demise of American Education -- lists some of the practices used in his district to keep up test scores:

Even back then, in the 1996-97 school year, the pressure for students to pass the state's accountability test was enormous. Since the early 90's, when teacher competence standards became based on a single accountability test standard, eliminating students who might negatively impact scores has become a priority.

If a teacher's job security is based on percentage of students passing a test, who can blame them for limiting their chances for potential test failures when given the opportunity?

The author gives a specific example of how some teachers would manipulate the results of these tests by encouraging some of the weaker students to be absent the day of the test.

I had indeed noticed that we seemed to have a higher than normal average absentee rate for the writing [test] each year, but in my third year, out of the six students certain to fail the writing test, five were absent on [test] day...

Those absent five were the only absences in fourth grade." The teacher informed his supervisor, also noting that these five students had "excellent attendance throughout the year," but his concern was dismissed when the supervisor observed that the presence of the sixth student who did take the test disproved the author's suspicions that the other five were "encouraged" to be absent.

Throughout the book the author notes questionable practices by administrators and teachers.
Among these practices were inside information about the nature of the test; that some teachers received answers prior to the test; and in one case the principal of the school told a student the answer and when the author reported it to his supervisor, he was told: 'No one in ---- gets disciplined or prosecuted for cheating, but rather it is the accusers [who] are ostracized and persecuted.'

Even more destructive to education is that in the "numbers game," the alternative of early intervention which, as previously cited, can truly improve student learning, could have been used effectively in the school system the author describes. But instead of early intervention the resources for improving student learning was expended at the end of a student's high school education when it was often too late to do anything to improve the numbers except by cheating. However, in some instances, when early intervention was used instead of giving young students a substantive education, they were merely being coached on how to take tests.

The author concludes:

The real problem is that though we... self-servingly raise our student's test taking prowess with all our aggressive interventions, their newly obtained proficiency is often shallow and fleeting.That's why our elementary [Texas State Exams] scores are a 90% passing rate while our older students -- who don't drop out -- pass at a 60% to 70% rate.

Unless the public begins to question and challenge "the numbers game," however, the kind of intellectually destructive behavior our anonymous author has revealed will be with us for the indefinite future.