January 25, 2008

Civil rights coalition calls for higher graduation rates, more accurate statistics

By Nanette Light
Scripps Howard Foundation Wire

WASHINGTON — While Congress considers renewing the No Child Left Behind Act, a coalition of civil rights groups is pressing for higher graduation rates.

A briefing on the subject Thursday on Capitol Hill will highlight problems that have led some states to report higher graduation rates than they should. Civil rights advocates say schools need to weigh the costs of drop-out rates, which are much higher for minority students and non-native English speakers.

According to the Alliance for Excellence Education, about 70 percent of students earn high school diplomas. Among minority students, approximately 58 percent of Hispanic students and 53 percent of African American students graduate, compared to 76 percent of white students and 80 percent of Asian Americans.

“Minority kids just don’t have the same education opportunities as other kids,” said Raul Gonzalez, legislative director of the National Council of La Raza, a coalition of Latino groups.

Differences in school buildings and quality of teaching contribute to a lower percentage of minority students earning their diplomas, Gonzalez said.

“This isn’t a news flash,” Gonzalez said. “Everyone knows this has been the case for decades. Apparently, this is fine. It has been OK because schools weren’t held accountable.”

North Carolina was once cited as the poster child for misleading graduation rates, said Joe Garcia, vice president for advocacy and communication for the North Carolina New Schools Project. The state used to claim that 90 percent of its students graduated. But students who dropped out were counted as transfers, even if they never showed up at another school. Now schools must confirm that students are attending another school, or they count against the graduation rate.

About 70 percent of students graduated in the 2006 to 2007 school year, a number that is regarded as more accurate.

An emphasis on test scores as a way to rate schools creates an incentive for schools to push out low-performing students, Gonzalez said. He said this raises the dropout rate for minority groups.

The size of a school can influence dropout rates, Garcia said. He said large high schools are not conducive to students who struggle academically.

“They get lost in the shuffle,” Garcia said. “Lots of folks will tell you about students being pushed out because someone didn’t think they would pass a state test. It is happening. In a large high school of 2,000 kids, it can happen without people noticing.”

A greater focus on raising graduate rates would drive innovation in high schools, Garcia said. His group creates different kinds of teaching and learning —one that revolves around students’ interest and academic themes— to reach students struggling academically.

“If we are going to get all kids to graduate, it is going to take a different kind of teaching and learning that is difficult to accomplish in a traditional, comprehensive high school,” Garcia said.

The low graduation rates stem from No Child Left Behind’s original focus on grades three through eight, said Garry Huggins, executive director of the Commission on No Child Left Behind. He said the commission is pushing for the same accountability for high schools to close the graduation rate gap.

Gonzalez said drafts of a House bill to extend and reform the No Child Left Behind Act propose uniform calculations of graduation rates across the country. Currently, each state determines how to calculate its graduation rate.

“If every state calculates graduation rates differently, it is hard to know who really has graduated,” Gonzalez said.

“It is just a mess right now,” Huggins said. “You can look from state to state, and you won’t be able to compare. So then in a way no one is held accountable.”

No one imagined focusing on test scores would create a loophole, Garcia said.

“When the expectation is focused more on what kids know but not how many kids know it, the shortcomings are exposed,” Garcia said.

Garica said there is momentum among states to create a method they can all use to calculate graduation rates.

“It’s a new agreement about understanding what it means to graduate and understanding that standards and tests aren’t the only way to measure a school,” Garcia said.

Gonzalez said it is a civil rights mission to place pressure on schools to be held accountable for higher test scores and higher graduation rates.

“There is no reason black or Hispanic students can’t graduate from high school,” Gonzalez said. “We are trying to push people to push themselves to do better.”

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