The question was straightforward: Is it possible for a student to make it all the way through his or her senior year, be given a high school diploma – and be illiterate?
Fran Rabinowitz, the leader of Connecticut’s largest school district, took a deep breath and then responded to the Superior Court judge’s question.
“Yes,” testified Rabinowitz, the superintendent of public schools in Bridgeport, which awards diplomas to about 1,000 students each year. “I would hope it doesn’t happen, but I can’t say with complete certainty that it hasn’t happened or doesn’t happen.”
Graduation rates in struggling school districts have been rising for years.
But among the 72 percent of Connecticut students in the Class of 2010 who went on to college, at least 22 percent had to take non-credit courses to learn reading, writing or math skills they should have acquired in high school. Among the 58 percent of Bridgeport’s Class of 2010 who went to college, at least half had to take a remedial course. It’s unclear whether things have improved along with the graduation rates since then, because the state has not made public updated data.
This seeming paradox – rising graduation rates coupled with low standardized test scores and high demand for remedial courses – was among the reasons that Hartford Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher ruled that the state fails to provide students with the education the state constitution says they are entitled to.
“What it means to have a secondary education is like a sugar-cube boat. It dissolves before it’s half launched,” Moukawsher wrote in a scathing indictment of the education students receive in the state’s most impoverished districts. “State graduation and advancement standards are so loose that in struggling cities the neediest are leaving schools with diplomas but without the education we promise them.”
When the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled six years ago that the state is responsible for providing students with an education that is “minimally adequate,” the controlling opinion concluded the state is not always on the hook when students fail.
“The obligation to provide a minimally adequate education must be based generally, not on what level of achievement students reach, but on what the state reasonably attempts to make available to them,” Justice Richard N. Palmer wrote.
In other words, does the state give students the opportunity to succeed?
When sending the case to Moukawsher to determine whether the state provides reasonable opportunities to students in the state’s most impoverished districts, Palmer wrote a violation could only be established if “what the state has done to discharge its obligations under [the Constitution] is so lacking as to be unreasonable by any fair or objective standard.”
After a five-month trial, Moukawsher ruled that passing students from grade to grade, and eventually giving them a diploma, without any meaningful state standards to ensure they had learned what they should have, is irrational and therefore unconstitutional.
“Without any reasonable doubt, this breaks the state’s constitutional promise of a free secondary education by making it for the neediest students meaningless. Among the poorest, most of the students are being let down by patronizing and illusory degrees,” he wrote. “A new system is constitutionally required to rationally, substantially, and verifiably connect an education degree with an education.”
It’s not a new dilemma, but political and fiscal pressures have stalled reform efforts repeatedly.
The press releases
Students from low-income families are significantly less likely to graduate high school than their peers.
In 2011, Connecticut had the nation’s worst gap in high school graduation rates between impoverished students and their better-off peers. Since then, graduation rates in many of the state’s lowest-performing districts have steadily increased, and Connecticut has seen the fastest narrowing of this achievement gap in the nation, the Johns Hopkins University School of Education reported.
While the statewide gradation rate has increased 5.4 percentage points over the six most recent years for which data is available – from 81.8 in 2010 percent to 87.2 in 2015 – rates have increased much more rapidly in districts where wide swaths of students are failing state standardized exams. (Missing from the calculation are students who transfer to other schools, are home-schooled or are held back.)
With those higher rates came annual media releases, press conferences and a new talking point from local and state officials boasting about how well things were going in the most impoverished districts.
“Here in East Hartford, the numbers are extraordinary. So, you get a very big thank you,” Gov. Dannel P. Malloy told local educators during a May press conference to celebrate the record-high statewide graduation rate.
In East Hartford, graduation rates have jumped by 14 percentage points. Double-digit percentage increases also occurred in New Haven, New Britain, Bloomfield and Hartford.
So what should the public make of the fact that thousands more students now receive a diploma, even though many of them are showing up at the state’s public colleges unprepared?
Malloy said the state’s shift to the Common Core State Standards – an approach to education instruction rolled out a few years ago – is helping students achieve more, and eventually will address the large number of students showing up for college in need of high school-level instruction.
“These things follow one another,” the Democratic governor said.
“I think you have to put this in perspective. If you don’t get a high school diploma your chances of going on to college at some point in your future are minimal,” Malloy said. “We also know that a high-school diploma winner earns over the course of their lifetime twice as much income as someone who doesn’t get a high school diploma. …What we are trying to do is prepare people to be competitive on a whole bunch of different levels.”
Meanwhile, graduation rates are significantly misaligned with the rate of high school juniors who are reading and doing math well enough to begin taking college-level courses, SAT results show. In East Hartford, for example, SAT test results show 44 percent of juniors last year were college- or career–ready in English while graduation rates have topped 75 percent for years.
Many of these low-income students who enroll in college will never finish their degree. Among Connecticut’s Class of 2013, one-in-five impoverished students earned a college degree within six years compared to one out of every two students who come from non-disadvantaged backgrounds.
When the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding – a group of parents, students, local educators and municipal leaders – filed this lawsuit 11 years ago, they aimed their criticism at the education students from low-income families were being provided.
‘Gaming of the system’
Despite the laudatory press releases, the judge concluded, “There is no place to hide this bad news.”
So how did East Hartford increase its rates?
Matt Ryan, the East Hartford High School principal, testified that, “I think we have graduated better-educated kids.”
But he also shared how each year, 75 to 80 high school seniors short of the credits they need to graduate stay after school to complete online courses.
“The content is there, but the difference between classroom discussion and working together vs. reading it on a computer and answering a quiz – I don’t think they compare,” Ryan testified of online courses.
Online courses “have proven to provide abysmal results for our kids,” testified William Thompson, the principal of New London High School.
The popularity of online learning has exploded in recent years. Software is promoted as a way to complement traditional classroom teaching and to motivate students who have failed in the classroom environment.
In 2010, the legislature mandated that school districts with high dropout rates provide the option to take courses online to students in danger of failing to graduate.
But so far, Connecticut’s venture into “virtual learning” has resulted in a hodgepodge of computer programs in various districts with no oversight by the State Department of Education or any other state agency.
“The online work must be ‘equivalent, rigorous, systematic and engag[ing],’ but the law doesn’t make these words actually mean anything,” Moukawsher ruled.
Nearly every state in the U.S. has increased graduation rates. President Obama celebrated the increases earlier this year during his State of the Union speech.
“More of our kids are graduating than ever before,” he said.
The federal government in 2005, under the No Child Left Behind Act, threatened to hold states accountable if their graduation rates didn’t increase. However, the feds left it up to states to determine who graduates.
“Standards are up to states. Graduation rates are up to states,” U.S. Education Secretary John B. King Jr. told reporters during a conference call this fall to celebrate record-high U.S. graduation rates.
King also acknowledged that testing showed many juniors and seniors are behind academically. “Certainly we share the concern that we have more work to do to ensure every student is ready for what’s next. Overall, the evidence is clear that students who have a high school diploma do better in the 21st century economy than students who don’t. So having a higher graduation rate is meaningful progress.”
National Public Radio looked into how several several states increased their graduation rates found three primary drivers: Students who fall behind receive help to catch up; standards are lowered to make it easier to get a degree; or likely dropouts are moved off the books by transferring them or misclassifying them.
The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General in November announced that it plans to investigate whether selected state agencies “have implemented systems of internal control over calculating and reporting graduation rates that are sufficient to ensure that reported graduation rates are accurate and reliable.” Currently, they are looking into the graduation rates reported by Alabama and California.
Meanwhile in Connecticut, Bridgeport’s Rabinowitz said, “I do believe that all the high schools right now are not high quality… There is some gaming of the system.”
Connecticut officials have attempted to broaden the way schools are measured to lessen the high-stakes focus on graduation rates. Each year, the state grades every school based on 19 different measures, such as how many students are chronically absent, how many enroll in arts and advanced placement college-prep courses, and how their students perform on state exams. For high schools, graduation rates and the percentage of students on track to graduate in four years account for 20 percent of a schools’ rating. Schools are expected to have at least 94 percent of their students graduate on time.
Aside from the public embarrassment of getting a poor grade from the state, schools rated the worst actually are given priority for extra state funding when it becomes available.
Reducing dropout rates
Tightening educational standards also can come into conflict with efforts to keep students from dropping out. For example, there is a concern that holding students back leads to an increase in the number of dropouts.
“They begin to feel hopeless when they do not begin to accrue credits,” testified Rabinowitz.
“Kids that repeat the ninth grade tend not to stay. So it’s, you know, if the repeating worked that would be great because then it would be that they just needed more time, but repeating doesn’t usually work,” testified Wentzell. “That’s a huge concern and a huge balance that local school districts and their boards need to consider when creating promotion and retention policies because, in general, doing the same thing again doesn’t work.”
When Wentzell was one of the top leaders of Hartford Public Schools, she testified that the district kept more kids in school – and therefore on track to graduate – by ending the practice of automatically failing students who missed more than 24 days of class in a semester.
“Policies that tell kids if they don’t come to school, they’re just going to get more school tend to make kids come to school even less,” she testified when discussing how Hartford’s graduation rate increased from 29 percent to 64 percent over five years. “Once they realized that they had skipped 25 times, they just stopped coming altogether.”
Thousands of students drop out each year: 3,537 students who started high school as part of the Class of 2012 dropped out before earning their diplomas. That’s one in 47 students statewide. In Hartford, Bridgeport and New Haven, one in 17 students dropped out. (See district-by-district dropout rates here.)
Economists who testified during the trial said the prospects for many who do not earn a high school diploma are dire.
Henry Levin, a professor who specializes in educational economics at Columbia University’s Teachers College, testified that the majority of those incarcerated in Connecticut prisons have less than a high school diploma.
An analysis he prepared for the trial as a witness for the coalition suing the state found that the lifetime earnings of Connecticut residents who don’t complete high school are $480,000, compared to $733,000 for graduates. Those who go on to earn a college degree earn $1.4 million.
“The quality of education is going to determine whether people are able to get jobs, or whether they are even able to interview for jobs,” testified Levin.
A high school diploma is a strong indicator of whether someone has a job in Connecticut, his analysis concluded.
While a high school diploma may help open the next door, the judge raised concerns throughout the trial that students are having to pay for courses in college to get the education the state constitution entitles them to.
Connecticut students pay $10.5 million each year to take these non-credit, remedial courses, reports the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning national think tank.
‘Soft bigotry of low expectations’?
The landmark 1983 publication “A Nation at Risk,” prepared for President Ronald Reagan, blamed the setting of low minimum expectations for public school students for “a rising tide of mediocrity” that threatened the economic future of the country.
While she doubted that any significant number of illiterate students are being given diplomas in Connecticut, Commissioner Wentzell testified during the trial that, “We hear reports frequently of assessments at the community college that place some high school graduates at the seventh- and eighth-grade level.”
“I think that the belief that it’s hopeless and so you have to just pass them along, it was at one time called the soft bigotry of low expectations,” testified Wentzell.
During a back-and-forth with the lead attorney for the state, Judge Moukawsher said, “When people come around these days and say, ‘I have a high school diploma, let me get a job,’ people almost snicker because it doesn’t mean anything.”
The judge’s solution: Have the state legislature or education department mandate that students show they are competent in core subjects before they receive a diploma instead of leaving the decision to local officials. The easiest way to restore public confidence in a diploma, the judge said, would be requiring students to earn at least a certain score on the existing state exams.
It’s not a new idea.
It’s an approach many states have taken, including Massachusetts and New York, but one which is sure to generate considerable opposition. Fifteen states this school year will require students to pass exit exams to earn a diploma, and five other states have passed laws requiring it in the future. However, 10 states have dropped exit exams since 2011, reports the Education Commission of the States, a nonprofit think tank that tracks state legislation.
Other states have awarded different types of diplomas, depending on the level of achievement a student is able to demonstrate. In Connecticut, no such distinction exists.
There have been efforts to overhaul graduation standards in the state, but they have largely stalled. When vying for federal Race to the Top money in 2010, the state passed legislation that would require students, beginning with the class of 2018, to earn more credits to graduate, complete a senior project and pass graduation exams in algebra, geometry, biology, American history and English.
After failing to win that federal grant – and amid pushback from local education leaders – state legislators have voted to delay the reforms year after year. With next year’s freshmen slated to become the first cohort finally held to the higher standards, the legislature this past spring delayed them again.
If Connecticut moves forward with exit exams, “There would be concern at a lot of different levels that – you know some people would feel perhaps it wasn’t fair, fair to the kids,” testified Wentzell.
After they had delayed the graduation reforms a second time, state legislators set up a task force of education officials to study raising graduation standards. That panel concluded its work earlier this year. It its final report, it recommends scrapping the legislation that requires students to pass exit exams.
“In order to address the needs of Connecticut students and the schools that serve them, our state’s graduation requirements must… refrain from relying upon end-of-course assessments that prevent the very flexibility with respect to content allocation and skill acquisition that is needed,” the task force wrote. “Simply establishing graduation requirements that demand greater learning will not result in all students mastering whatever content and skills are embedded in the [State Board of Education] standards.”
It offered no alternative, which frustrated the judge.
“Reading the task force report and the statutes after hearing and watching school officials struggle to talk about graduation standards forces the conclusion that the state is paralyzed,” he wrote in his ruling. “The state sings the praises of a high school degree as a door opener. It hears clamoring from the community to get them into students’ hands. But in the end, it only leaves districts free to meet these demands in the easiest possible way – by supplying students with unearned diplomas.”
Instead of mandating proficiency, the state education board has adopted guidelines for content students should master at various educational stages and has left it up to local districts to decide whether to follow those guidelines in promoting students.
“We want to move toward an approach where mastery of the material is the standard for graduation,” testified Wentzell, noting that 20 of the state’s 352 high schools have voluntarily moved in that direction.
But the judge said standardized test scores make his conclusion that undeserved diplomas are being awarded undeniable.
One-third of high school juniors are not reading and writing well enough to take college courses or start a career, SAT results released in August showed. While thousands of those students are close to being where they should be, one out of every six high school juniors in Connecticut is significantly behind.
Tracey Snyder, an East Hartford science teacher, finds it difficult to cope with the number of students showing up in her class who are multiple grades behind in reading.
Some students aren’t able to read her tests. Words like abundant, faucet, hence and either are not in many students’ vocabularies. So while they understand and excel during oral lessons, they struggle on the written exams.
“It breaks my heart because I know they know the science behind it,” she said. “They don’t have the ability to read it and comprehend it.”
Last year, she failed 17 of her 87 students. Most moved on to the next grade.
This story is part of a seven-part series. Troubled Schools on Trial:
- When poverty permeates the classroom
- A broken formula for state aid
- Building boom, pensions lock in big costs statewide
- Who’s in charge? State vs. local control
- What does a high school diploma prove?
- Special education driving costs and controversies
- Will a scathing court decision lead to action?