Nebraskans are proud of our state’s high school graduation rate, which, at 89.7 percent, is the second highest in the nation. Graduating from high school is a clear measure of achievement and indicative of future success. That’s why this year’s annual ranking of America’s best high schools is catching many in the Cornhusker state by surprise.
According to the recently released report by U.S. News & World Report, Nebraska comes in last in the country for percent of high schools receiving a top rating, with only 0.8 percent earning a gold or silver medal. In contrast, in the top-ranked state of Maryland, 28.9 percent of high schools earned a top rating. Interestingly, this year’s rankings include graduation rates for the first time.
So, how can Nebraska be near best in one measure of school quality and last in another?
The most likely explanation is that neither provides a full picture of student learning. We ought to consider the respective strengths and weaknesses of each and neither should be discounted altogether. Instead, Nebraska’s high-low ranking contrast should spur needed dialogue regarding how to best measure—and promote—student learning and success.
Are They Mastering the Content?
At the same time, those in education policy should be wary of the ramifications associated with over-reliance on any single measure as proof of school quality. For instance, the pressure to raise graduation rates, without adequate attention to maintaining or improving standards, has potentially harmful consequences.
Consider what’s happened in Nebraska’s largest school district, Omaha Public Schools (OPS), which serves nearly 52,000 students.
In tandem with a statewide push to increase graduation rates, in 2010, OPS revised its grading scale. Since then, teachers have expressed ongoing concern that the revisions resulted in students passing to the next grade, and, eventually, graduating, with minimal proof of content mastery.
In 2014, an OPS school board member echoed the concerns first raised by teachers in 2010, calling for an independent investigation into the district’s grading policies.
According to a 2015 OPS teacher survey, 40 percent of high school teachers disagreed or strongly disagreed that school report cards accurately represent a student’s mastery of skill or knowledge.
Although less than 10 percent of students are proficient in math or reading in OPS’ lowest-performing middle school, in 2012, out of 3,347 seventh-graders in the district, only one was retained. This represents a significant shift in retention policies from prior years. It also means more students enter high school without having mastered middle school or even elementary level content.
Once in high school, some students in OPS advance despite not completing any major assignments or passing course exams. In one instance, a high school student advanced despite submitting only 1 of 4 summative assignments (the equivalent of a major test or exam). That student scored a zero on all four assignments, yet still received a passing grade.
Succeeding Beyond High School
What’s happening in districts like OPS has immediate post-secondary ramifications, too. At Omaha’s Metro Community College, 66 percent of first-time students require remedial math and less than 13 percent graduate on time.
According to one post-secondary educator in Nebraska, local community colleges “need to compensate for the lack of academic standards across the state” because “some students come to us and they can’t do basic math or can barely read.”
Call it low standards, grade inflation, or something else—we know that school districts across the country are graduating students despite little evidence that those young people can succeed beyond high school. While this contributes to the appearance of improved outcomes in the form of higher graduation rates, one must discern illusion from reality.
More importantly, we must constantly ask whether students are the benefactors of the policies and practices spurred by adults’ desire to land higher in the rankings.