Florida’s Vanishing Students and the Graduation Rate Scam

Last Wednesday, the Florida commissioner of education announced a statewide investigation. Some schools are allegedly manipulating their graduation rates by pushing struggling students, many in their senior year, to switch to alternative schools so they don’t drag down the school’s graduation statistics.

If you don’t know, alternative schools exist to help students with behavioral issues, or who otherwise need an alternative to a traditional education. The problem with alternative schools isn’t that they exist, it’s how they might be used.

And similar to the fears of teaching-to-the-test in the classroom, administrators who manage-to-the-grade of the school are robbing students of the education they deserve when loopholes like this one are sought out and exploited.  Alternative schools can be misused as a parking lot for kids on a downward spiral, who eventually vanish into thin air.

Disappearing Students in Florida

A recent report by ProPublica brought this graduation and school grade loophole to light. Their investigation focused mostly on specific traditional and alternative schools near Orlando that apparently banded together to game the system. But the report also suggests that the problem is likely happening all over the country.

Basically, struggling high school teens were being laundered through alternative schools, which were built to help them. The charter gets the enrollment and the high school gets rid their low-performing students, keeping their school grade and prestige in tact. Neither takes responsibility for failing the teens.

As these students are steered toward alternative schools, they are silently exited from the traditional school’s roster without affecting the school grade or graduation rate.

Then the cycle repeats itself in the alternative school. Once there, students don’t always find the additional support they obviously need to succeed and graduation rates plummet. More than half of alternative schools have graduation rates below 50%. The Sunshine High alternative charter school in Orlando coded 1,230 students who left prematurely to pursue adult education, such as GED, in the years between 2012 and 2015.  This code allows the alternative school to avoid identifying the student as a “drop-out,” even though they did not earn a diploma.

There is no proof the kids actually entered GED courses.

New Laws May Increase the Student Shell-Games

These types of examples are exactly why parents distrust the bureaucracy of education and push heavily on any attempt to water-down accountability.  No one should be able to shuffle kids around until we lose track of them. Knowing where every student is, how well they are doing and the difference our schools are making in their lives is our responsibility and the measure of true accountability.

Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) should address every single student as it clearly states in the name.  However, ESSA actually allows states more freedom to decide who counts and who doesn’t in grading school performance. The U.S. Department of Education isn’t even interested in the school grade anymore! This deregulation could see a rise in these caveats, creating loopholes and crevices for opportunists to hide our babies.

Most disturbingly, the children being hidden are disproportionately poor kids of color. These are the kids who are easy to justify; the usual suspects whose change to an adult education program would go unquestioned. And, once again, we fail them.

Opponents of Accountability Need Some Grit

So, to the opponents making the argument that we put too much pressure on schools to “make the grade” but offer no real solutions to stop the hemorrhaging of entire communities of children, you completely undermine the intent of measuring student performance.

Yes, school grades determine teacher raises, funding, home values and community economy.  But that’s the symptom, not the problem.

Inherently, we all have a responsibility to do what’s right for each child regardless of the backlash.  We need to have the same grit we ask of our students.

The intense pressure of accountability should encourage school leaders to up their game, not game the system.  So, until we start giving all kids the same opportunity to excel in a public education environment, the pressure must stay ON.  We must establish reasonable and reliable ways of reporting achievement and progress, which accurately reflects in the performance record of a school.

Tough life circumstances make it hard enough for students to succeed against their odds. Any attempt to play games with their chances should be immediately uncovered and erased.

What do you think?


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