Since the mid-1990s, the Indiana Chamber has helped lead efforts to secure a more accurate reporting of our state and local graduation rates. Without question, we have made significant progress from the days when school districts like Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) would claim a 90% graduation rate, despite graduating less than a quarter of the ninth graders that had been enrolled four years previously.
But even as the data have improved, so have the "tricks" being utilized. This time, the primary culprit of the manipulation is an excessive use of waivers from the state’s high school graduation exam. As reported July 1 by the Indianapolis Star, 27% of IPS graduates in 2011 received a waiver from the state’s graduation requirements.
Now let’s not lose sight of what this means. The current state requirement is for students to pass tests covering 10th grade English and Algebra I, a course that most students take in either the eighth or ninth grade. So the expectations are not very high. Nonetheless, a school can waive students from these low level requirements if there is evidence – through coursework or other exams – that the student has genuinely mastered the material. In other words, the waivers are intended for those extremely rare instances when, due to test anxiety or some other extreme circumstance, the repeated failure of these tests really does not reflect the student’s abilities.
Instead, some districts like IPS are using the waivers to pass through students whom they have deemed as having "tried hard enough." Let us not worry how those young adults will be received in the real world, where "trying" – and failing repeatedly – will not be sufficient. There are no "waivers" in the real world – especially for such low expectations.
But alas, IPS is certainly not the only culprit in this mess. Statewide, over 5,000 students (about 8% of all graduates) received waivers from these minimal diploma requirements in 2011. That’s up dramatically from 2004, when the statewide number was just a few hundred – and even those numbers were likely higher than they should have been.
Additionally, we keep hearing about high schools that are counseling families to withdraw from school with the stated intention of being home schooled – thereby removing those students from the high schools’ student count, regardless of any evidence that any home schooling actually occurred. In 2009, for example, 97 students left Kokomo High School supposedly to be homeschooled – nearly 5% of the entire school. At Michigan City, the number was 87 (4.5% of total enrollment); at Muncie South, it was 83 (over 8%); at Warren Central, it was 94 (2.5%); and so on.
So while the new "official" graduation rate has inched up to 85%, these and other concerns suggest, once again, that we are dealing with false numbers. Indeed, our own estimates, using several national calculation methods, suggest that the real graduation rate (without waivers) remains at a dismal 70%. That actually is an improvement over the last several years and appears to be a reversal of a steady decline that had occurred since the early 1990s. But it is a far cry from the 85% that is reported officially by the state.
Representative Bob Behning (R-Indianapolis), chair of the House Education Committee, has already announced that he will have legislation in 2013 to address these issues. Having worked with Rep. Behning 10 years ago to address the previous problems with our state data, we are pleased to see his leadership again. Meanwhile, be leery of the claims that you may be hearing. We sure wish that those gains were real. Indeed, we need them to be real, but the true data strongly suggest otherwise.