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School districts are faking higher graduation rates by dumbing down requirements

Democratic political operative Paul Begala wrote an entire book in 2000 mocking soon-to-be President George W. Bush, Is Our Children Learning?

The titular question should also be posed to President Barack Obama, given comments he has made about high-school graduation rates soaring under his presidency.

Washington Post education columnist Jay Mathews writes that “there is no research” showing that more students are getting good educations, even as graduation rates had their “fifth straight record-setting year” in 2014-2015, hitting 83 percent, as Obama touted.

Mathews says much of the jump “might be an illusion” because the vast majority of school districts use a sleight-of-hand maneuver known as “credit recovery” to get students out the door.

Think of it like getting liposuction instead of exercising:

In many schools, these quick fixes allow students to substitute a few weeks of work online for a course that usually takes months in a classroom. …

The most relevant data [UC-Santa Barbara Education Prof. Russell] Rumberger found compared student experiences in online and in traditional classroom versions of Algebra I during summer school sessions for 1,224 Chicago students who had previously failed the course. The students in the online course found it more difficult and had more negative attitudes about math than the students who were face-to-face with a teacher. The online students also had lower assessment scores than those in the traditional course. Both groups had similarly poor records in subsequent math courses.

And that Chicago study was unusual in that students spent the same amount of time in both face-to-face and online courses. Credit recovery options often mean less overall work on a faster schedule:

That isn’t often mentioned when state and local officials announce their latest graduation rates, such as the impressive 87 percent in Maryland and 91 percent in Virginia. Before educators get too excited about the results from credit recovery, they need to assess how much those students have learned in a few weeks compared with those who spend months in class.

The biggest success story in the country for improved graduation rates, the District of Columbia, isn’t yet giving would-be graduates “valid tests of competency” before awarding them credit, according to Mathews.

And if your children are getting Ds in class, don’t send them off to inevitable failure in college, according to Prof. Rumberger:

“Some research suggests that students need a high school GPA of 2.5 to be ready for college (i.e., don’t need remediation) and have good labor market prospects. So we may be graduating lots of students who are not adequately prepared for the future.”

Read the column.

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