Alexander Ooms is a member of the board of the Charter School Institute, the West Denver Preparatory Charter School and the Colorado chapter of Stand for Children.

The recent Westword article on Denver North High School’s manipulation of its graduation rates, the  belief that “juking the stats” likely spreads beyond a single school and a sage comment at the end of Alan’s post wondering what other Denver high schools were affected all indicate that this is a topic where rhetoric might benefit from a closer relationship with data.

At its crux, the question is if graduation rates tell us something meaningful about how district schools are performing academically. And it sure looks like they do, but not in the way one might have hoped.

For what the North debacle — and a previous yet related controversy over Lincoln High School — bring into question is twofold. First, does a high school diploma signify a reasonable, baseline level of student achievement; and second, is the rise in DPS’s graduation rate spread evenly throughout the district or is being used by some schools to mask a lack of academic rigor and proficiency.

To answer the first question, we need to see if there a pervasive gap  — particularly at certain schools — between a school’s graduation rate and the ability of its alums to read, write, and do math at grade level.  As one teacher at North commented for the Wesword article, are we reaching a point where someone could say “Oh, they went to North? They’ll give a diploma to anyone” – and for how many schools might this be an issue?

So here is a quick graph comparing respective 2010 graduation rates (data here) and 2010 average proficiency rates* (from CDE’s schoolview.org) at a number of notable, open-enrollment DPS high schools.

The red line indicates the trend; the schools above the line will have more students who graduate with solid academic skills; those below the line will have more graduates who lack basic proficiency. How far you are from the line shows the gap: well above the line pretty much guarantees a close correlation between graduation and at least a base level of academic ability; well below the line increases the likelihood that a diploma has little relation to academic skills.

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