Graduation Inflation is Harming Students

Graduation Inflation is Harming Students
Jeff Gritchen/The Orange County Register via AP

Last month, the Department of Education released data showing that, yet again, American high school graduation rates have increased. This sparked a wave of celebratory press coverage across the country. But US News issued a note of caution: “Graduation Rate Up, But Not Enough.” In it, education reform advocates lament that the graduation rate didn’t rise faster.

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But perhaps the bad news is the fact that it’s still rising. There are several compelling reasons to fear that graduation inflation is harming at-risk students of color, even if they rarely feature in the public debate.
First, few who are paying close attention believe that rising graduation rates represent genuine academic progress. Test scores are stagnant or declining, so how are graduation rates up?
In some districts, the answer is outright fraud. In the District of Columbia, an audit revealed that half of students who missed half their senior year graduated anyway. Discounting students who graduated courtesy of explicit policy violations, the 2017 graduate rate would have dropped from 73 to 48 percent, exactly where it was before DC Public Schools became nationally famous for its meteoric (and fake) graduation rate increase. Credible allegations of similar fraud have emerged in major districts across the country.
Many other districts stopped short of outright fraud, opting to juice the graduation rate by expanding credit recovery programs with exceptionally low standards, allowing students to sit in front of a computer and effectively shotgun enough credits to be granted a diploma.  
This fakery and inflation has significant, if unmeasurable, costs. Off record, teachers speak of its depressing effects on the classroom: students who try hard become demotivated when they see slackers receiving equal credit, and slackers put forth even less effort when they realize they don’t have to. Students lose respect for the school when they realize that whether they learn enough to graduate matters less than whether adults can take credit for their graduation.
Second, graduation inflation does significant harm to students who – despite all the standard-lowering – don’t graduate. Education advocates argue that students need a high school diploma to be employable in the 21stcentury. But this is a self-fulfilling policy driven by credentialism, not skill acquisition.
In a city where 50 percent of students graduate, employers would not automatically stigmatize half of its young adult workforce. But in a city where 90 percent of students graduate, employers would have good reason to suspect that there is something wrong with the 10 percent who don’t. Shut out of the labor market, those young adults will have few opportunities other than crime. Unless schools are actually equipping at-risk students with more skills, graduation inflation will streamline the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
Third, graduation inflation allows activists to pass off destructive policies as effective reforms. Putting students in front of screens all day may do nothing to boost academic achievement even as it makes them more depressed and anxious-- but graduation rates are up so it worked! Reducing suspensions may harm academic achievement and make classrooms more chaotic– but graduation rates are up so it worked! As American schools implemented the Common Core and test-based teacher evaluations, academic achievement for low-performing students saw an unprecedented drop– but graduation rates are up so it worked!
Graduation inflation is an excellent case study in what some call “structural oppression” or “institutional racism.” Self-interested politicians, privileged advocates, and lazy journalists all have their own status incentives to promote and cheerlead graduation inflation. They’re all, perhaps, largely unconscious of how their policies and rhetoric perpetuate racial inequity.
Meanwhile, the drive to increase the number of students who receive traditional high school diplomas crowds out a policy innovation that could actually help build professional skills among students who are not on a natural track to graduation: vocational tracking.
In The Once and Future Worker, my Manhattan Institute colleague Oren Cass notes that our K-12 education system is designed regressively, catering to high-achieving students while leaving so many others thoroughly unprepared for the real world. He proposes re-orienting high school so that after tenth grade students have a choice: continue full-time in a traditional setting, or spend a year receiving vocational instruction and then enter the workforce bolstered by a wage subsidy.
Tracking is anathema to most education reformers, but only because they are unconscious of their privilege. As Cass notes, elites would be in favor of tracking if public education’s default track was geared toward the median student, rather than the college-bound minority.  
At least one state, Indiana, is moving toward a system that allows students to graduate by demonstrating employability skills through work-based learning.
This path forward would be a win-win for politicians and at-risk students. As the graduation rate increase slows, and the public becomes more aware that it doesn’t represent real progress, politicians will have to find a safer way to keep the rate rising. They could do so by expanding the definition of graduation and actually helping students build the skills necessary to participate in the workforce. 
But in order for that to happen, policymakers must first learn to kick their annual habit of celebrating graduation rate increases and pressuring schools to make the rate rise even faster.