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Four-year graduation rule will doom some schools to unfair, inevitable failure

Almost exactly a year ago, I got to watch Principal Mike Sodomka welcome a VIP and her retinue to Humboldt High School in St. Paul: American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. The official purpose of the visit is long since lost on me, although I do know Weingarten was here in part because her union’s St. Paul affiliate tops the “locals you should emulate” list. 

What I recall is Sodomka’s stealth agenda. He wanted Weingarten to go back to Washington and explain to the bigwigs why Humboldt would appear perennially on the feds failing schools list. Nearly half of its 900 impoverished students are just learning English, and one-fourth fall into special education classifications that make compliance with performance benchmarks nigh impossible.

Sodomka walked his esteemed visitor from room to room, explaining in one that the high-schoolers inside had IQs of 70 or lower and were working on reading the same sight words kindergarteners are exposed to and in another teachers were discussing how to teach kids with IQs of less than 50 how to take the bus.

Tests get failed, needless to say, and just half of students graduate within four years, which makes Humboldt, on paper, as bad as any notorious dropout factory.

That’s not the whole story, though. Some 75 percent stay in school for a fifth or sixth year and a whopping 93 percent graduate — better than the district average of 88 percent.

Sodomka wanted Weingarten to nudge the feds to loosen up their notion of what it means to graduate on time. If they didn’t, he warned politely, schools like his were doomed to fail to meet federal proficiency guidelines year after year, with ugly consequences.

I flashed on the visit the other day when reading a Star Tribune story announcing that Minneapolis Public Schools’ graduation rate is about to plummet as a result of a new state rule disallowing the inclusion of students who take a fifth or sixth year to graduate.

Given the longer timeline, 73 percent of MPS students graduate. Under the new rules, that number will fall to 49 percent, if current trends remain true.

MPS number-crunchers have long beaten their heads against a wall on this one because, no matter which way the political wind is blowing, their arguably more true graduation rate somehow gets underreported

So here’s a better pair of numbers: According to Dave Heistad, executive director of research and evaluation for MPS, just 16 percent of students drop out and 12 percent are “lost,” meaning they move and their new district fails to notify Minneapolis, end up enrolled in another country, or otherwise fall through the cracks of the reporting system.

Graduation rates are among the squishiest statistics in education. The state is required to report the numbers to the U.S. Department of Education, and because of No Child Left Behind, schools must show continuous improvement.

Once upon a time, each state could decide how to calculate its graduation rate. In 2008, as schools and districts began failing to make adequate yearly progress on graduation as defined by No Child Left Behind, the feds tightened up the rules to say students needed to graduate within four years.

But then they created an exception that said states could opt to use the longer timeline. And then the National Governors Association got involved and decided it should be four years. Some states quickly adopted the new calculus; others, including Minnesota, took a while to consider the proposition.

Minnesota’s shift from a five- and six-year standard to a four-year one was adopted before MPS veteran Brenda Cassellius, who knows well the challenges facing urban districts, became the state’s education commissioner. And according to a couple of people familiar with her predecessor’s decision to move to four-year reporting beginning in the fall of 2012, there was significant business community input into the decision.

Now, of course, Minnesota is among the states asking U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to grant a waiver from some of NCLB’s more noxious provisions.

Relief from pressure to make AYP on graduation rates was not part of Cassellius’ initial waiver request. Duncan has just now released guidelines for the waiver program, so perhaps there’s still time to get Sodomka’s message to D.C.

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Comments (5)

Good piece; it deserves wider distribution.

The phrase, "Tests get failed," is a misleading sentence. It doesn't say who is failing the tests. Are the special education students, especially the ones with very low IQs, taking the same tests as the rest of the students? I thought special ed students are held to a different standard than the other students. If large numbers of non-special ed students are failing, something is terribly wrong with this school. Graduation rates are a good indicator for the public that something is wrong. Changing the rules so six years in high school is considered on-time is a coverup.

Rosalind,
The exam is the same exact exam for special ed, learning disabled, ELL, whatever.

Many, many of the 5 or 6 year graduates are refugees and new immigrants. While we should applaud getting a teenager, who literally spent their first ten years in a tent, graduating in just six years, you callously say it is a "coverup".

It is frustrating when people have no idea of the different Minnesota that exists right under their nose. They are judgmental, condescending, and capricious.

We could do like Florida does. They pass their kids who are not on track on to "adult education" schools, and then take them off the roles so they don't count. Our Republican friends brought Jeb all the way up here to explain this Florida miracle to us.

No one expects a student with a low IQ or unable to speak English to achieve as much as the average student. However, no where in this article does it say whether the other students in the school can graduate within four years. It appears this school is hiding its poor achievement behind its many special needs students.

Disappointing article and it would appear, on the surface, that there was minimal effort to obtain a broder perspective of the issue of graduation rates. Indeed, one cannot except non-native speakers to have the same degres of success as native speakers, all other factors being equal. What happens when you factor i the students' level of English proficiency? Similarly, the district can factor in a students' IQ when reporting academic progress. Why is this not discussed? The students population of the urban schools has changes significantly in the last twenty years. Criteria for graduation and grade level performance as measured by standardized tests need to reflect these changes in demographics.