Maryland's graduation rate reached a five-year high of 87 percent last spring, according to recently released data. But I would hardly consider that an accomplishment.
In the past, a high school diploma was a certificate of achievement, a type of commodity like a monetary unit. It had a certain value to the holder and guaranteed that the possessor had mastered certain reading, writing and math skills. At one time, it even meant the holder had citizenship and geography skills. But with the focus on data driven education, graduation rates are now a mark of an institution — be it a school, a district or a state — and not of an individual. This shift means educators have more at stake in student achievement than do the students, and principals now expect all seniors to graduate. The market value of a diploma is now equal to the least proficient student, and administrators really do not have a commitment to student success, only to making the institution look good.
For evidence of this, simply look to the state board of education, which is considering setting lower passing grades for a new test that will soon be a graduation requirement (most state students failed it last year) or offering second-tier diplomas to those who cannot pass the test.
The shift to data-driven management of education has skewed the expected outcome, which had been to prepare students for college and career. Now the focus is to appear as if progress is made. Education has essentially become a charade, and the value of a diploma a mirage. Add to this that much of the conversation of educational reformers comes across as a type of double-speak. Administrators claim to want — or even have — rigorous instruction, with 100 percent success. How can something that 100 percent can attain be rigorous? Training to become a Navy Seal is rigorous, and a lot less than 100 percent complete the training.
And there are data to prove the charade. Colleges and universities report an increasing number of students are not prepared for college level work. Most students at the Community College of Baltimore County — 76 percent in fiscal year 2015 — require some kind of remedial coursework, and many of them were educated in Baltimore County (66 percent), meaning that BCPS is graduating unprepared students. Remedial classes are now a regular part of university catalogs. According to a report by the American Enterprise Institute, less than 50 percent of those who enter college graduate. Employers comment that they cannot find people with sufficient skills. Part of the problem is a skill gap as many high schools now focus on students preparing to take the SATs and AP tests, even students who have expressed interests in carpentry, plumbing and computer programming. Data on how many students take the SAT and AP tests are the criteria to evaluate a school.
Students know the game. They know they will graduate. There are students in high schools who are taking "credit recovery" classes, meaning they are doing work in a subject that they failed, many times from making poor choices. Students who fail the High School Assessments complete a "Bridge Plan"; the backup option was originally to be student driven with little direct teacher supervision, and not during school time. But in an effort to make sure students graduate, they are completing the Bridge Plan directly supervised by teachers, during school time.
Anecdotally, teachers will state that student work production has dropped. For many students, school has become a time to socialize. There are still many students for whom school is a stepping stone and a diploma is a mark of achievement, but the culture is changing.
So why not end the charade?
There is a toy referred to as a thumb lock, which is a straw tube in which a person places his or her fingers. In a counter-intuitive way, the only means of withdrawing the fingers is to push them further in, thus expanding the tube and releasing the digits. The solution to improving our education system also seems counter intuitive: End data-driven education management and award fewer students a diploma of academic achievement in order to authentically prepare them for college and career.
As the old saying goes, there are three types of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics. In Maryland, the numbers not only lie, they set up our children to fail.
Edward Kitlowski is a teacher at Kenwood High School. His email is email@example.com.