“61%” Graduation Rate; I Guess the Public Will Get What it Expects, Even When They Don’t Really Get It.


“Bloomberg touts city graduation rate as it ticks up 1%”—NY Dailey News


 “It’s something we should be very proud of. . . . We’ve done a spectacular job,” Hizzoner said”


         The mayor’s words are a case of pride coming after the fall.  I read somewhere once that: “If you want to hide something from some folks, just put in a book!” I guess a corollary to that assertion, is: if you want to fool, and hide bad news from the public, just put it in numbers. I can only wonder if people reading this non-news story, fully comprehend the translation of  39% into the number of real people, real students that we as a society have failed; and they have not disappeared, they are very much in the business of making all of us (some communities more than others) pay for our failure. At first I thought this was a “spoof” news story; but as I reached the end of the article I realized that the reporters were actually being serious. The “real” graduation rate is a very complex number to calculate and arrive at; the fact that it is a total abstraction to parents and the average citizen is helpful to school districts because news reporters are not going to seriously expend the time and energy to discover the true graduation numbers. For example a place to start is the students who drop out of school somewhere between Elementary and the end of the 8th grad, and never appear in a 9th grade cohort. Thousands of students” transfer” out of state, go into a correctional facilities, or to some type of private school setting, GED/alternative high school programs, etc. If the graduation equation is the number of students who graduate being the numerator, and the total number of students who entered and completed a 9th grade cohort in the denominator; then “losing” students from the denominator will raise the “graduation rate”. The structure of high schools is such that a student can “graduate” a year before, in the middle of their “senior” year, in the summer, in January of the next year, or in their fifth year of high school. One can only imagine the amount of data collection that would be required to arrive at the true graduation rate. Finally, summer school courses are very often suspect as to the level of rigor they provide; particularly when the unwritten “charge” given to summer school administrators and teachers is to: “move those seniors out”, by passing them.  (1) If indeed the graduation rate was as high as 61%, then this is nothing even close to spectacular; and so the question is: Why have we as a society set the bar for “success” so low, and our tolerance for the crushed hopes for so many young people so high? (2) A plus or minus 1% in a system with over 500 high schools is not significant enough to attributed that percentage change to a policy; good or bad. (3) If we pretend for a moment (and I mean pretend) that the 61% is accurate, we would see that in any NYC calculation of graduation rates, that the numbers concentrate negatively in some groups and positively favor other groups; that is, I am convinced that the 39%, or non-grads is concentrated (a high percentage of the 39%) in the Black and Latino student populations. And further, (4) what percentage of the “61%” represents real diplomas that will allow those “graduates” to successfully transition to a post high school career or educational setting?  There are so many ways to truly and authentically measure how well our high schools are doing; that would also be beneficial to the students:

  1. See how well a school does (over a 4 year period) with the actual performance levels the students have when they enter the 9th grade; how well does a school do with “weak” students over a 4 year period.
  2. Just comparing the “graduation rates” of schools with different admission policies i.e. specialized, Application-optional, zoned-neighborhood schools; tells you nothing about those schools. Non-restrictive application schools are unfairly castigated, and restrictive admissions schools are falsely praised; the criteria that determines a schools “success” should be monitored, measured and school specific ex: Is Bronx Science, Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Tech. performing at a high level, are they underperforming? Well, we (parents and public) don’t really know if the measurement is based on Regents exam scores, and graduation rates only.
  3. Comparing a school’s graduation rate from one year to the next is not useful in the way it is presently being used; i.e.  Giving schools” phony letter grades”. This type of “comparative” data is useful only in a limited context; and is essentially meaningless outside of the hands of those who really know how to deconstruct this information and translate it into improved academic achievement. We need data, but more important we need good data!
  4. Students who get accepted to college (2 or 4 year institutions)
  5. Students who attend college and are not required taking remedial (high school) courses.
  6. Students who actually complete and earn a college degree.
  7. Let’s teach and  test for “job readiness skills” as graduation requirement
  8. The number of students that enter an Apprenticeship or career technical training program.
  9. The number of students who successfully enter the work-force after graduation (this is one of perhaps several factors that people will say that high schools: “have no control”. It is true that public schools can’t control any of the variables that drive the economics of our society. But what we can control, and should be held accountable, is the degree that our graduates are at least prepared in conceptual, skills and behavior knowledge to maximize their chances of success for their lives after graduation.


As I read my own words I am thinking that perhaps the cheering of the “61%” makes some sense. Perhaps a real assessment of a school system’s high schools takes a lot of work, work we are not willing to do. And what would the public say if they knew the real graduation rate numbers, and the huge amount of money being spent for such a small return? What would communities of color say or do if they knew that their children made up the bulk of the lost 39%? And what would students do if they realized that after spending so many years preparing for a post-high school life, they are not really prepared? Maybe it is appropriate to give three cheers for the 61% number; after all who is really counting? Surely not the people who don’t count.