The Free Press, Mankato, MN

February 25, 2014

Our View: Grad rate offers mixed grade

Why it matters: Gains in graduation rates for area schools and the state show positive signs but ways to measure come into question


The Mankato Free Press

---- — The enthusiasm that Mankato area graduation rates appear to be well above state average and state averages are better than last year must be tempered by the frustration of Minnesotans on the existence of a measurement system that seems to change and confuse.

While Minnesota’s overall graduation rate for 2013 was the highest in a decade at 80 percent, up from 2012’s rate of 77.6 percent, the report was like a batting average with an asterisk by it. That’s because even last year, graduation rates were measured differently. While that mattered to some who may have been reluctant to address a comparison to last year, it didn’t stop Minnesota Commissioner of Education Brenda Cassellius, a political appointee, from stating rates are the best in a decade and credit should go to Dayton and the Legislature for increasing funding.

Maybe. You can’t tell from the system of measurement we have right now.

Some Republican critics suggest rates may have gone up this year because the Legislature removed the graduation test last year as a requirement for graduating. There’s got to be a least a little truth to that from a logical point of view. Some grad rates jumped dramatically leading one to the conclusion that something more dramatic was at work — like removing one of the more difficult requirements for graduating.

Caselliuss countered that it was related to a new accountability and performance system for schools. That system uses graduation rates as a measure for schools, but it also focuses on reducing the achievement gap. And it’s also clear that schools and teachers have redoubled their efforts to track and help struggling students and to improve teaching methods.

In some respects, the new system of measurement and accountability has been working. In the new measurements, many showed improvement not only in the Mankato area but around the state. The Multiple Measurement Rating measures the achievement gap progress as well as graduation rates. A report about a week ago showed the achievement gap was narrowing in Mankato area schools as well as several schools around the state

We’ve argued the new measurement system is superior to the punishment approach of No Child Left Behind, and new teacher evaluation and accountability standards being phased in are also positive steps.

But at some point taxpayers need to know that students must pass some kind of measurable requirement to graduate and we should compare that against our policy and financial initiatives. Parents have a reasonable expectation their children will be educated in a manner to secure gainful employment after graduation. Employers and students themselves deserve no less.

The good news that a higher percentage of students are graduating in four years must be tempered with the idea that the formulas seem to be changing, leaving education leaders and taxpayers at least a little confused on how to measure progress.

Taxpayers, and policymakers for that matter, are best served when they have comparable data to measure progress. That we change the measures every so often, or apply them inconsistently, means there is no real data to back up plans for efficiency gains, funding cuts or funding increases if necessary.

As political winds change — as they have been shown to do in the last five years — we hope we don’t go back and forth on how to measure graduation. A grad test that comes back into vogue will only skew our year-to-year graduation rates further and hamper our ability to judge whether education is working for Minnesota’s students.

A continual tweaking of what to measure and when, with what group, based on the dogma of the month will provide the same skewed results.

This doesn’t have to be rocket science. Figure out what kids should know to graduate, test them and grade them.