Alaska's higher high school graduation rates are just smoke if standards are low

Are rising high school graduation rates a bad thing? A recent New York Times article, titled "As graduation rates rise, so do fears of falling standards," which ran in Alaska Dispatch News on Dec. 27, suggests that the rise is due to weakening school standards and that today's high school diploma may be a "false promise." It's a timely article, as it focuses our attention on critical education issues Alaska is grappling with right now.

In Alaska and in Anchorage, graduation rates have increased substantially over the past decade. In Anchorage 10 years ago, the four-year on-time graduation rate was under 60 percent, and now it is over 80 percent. That's still slightly less than the national average, which is about 82 percent. All this gain, however, cannot be attributed to weakening standards. The likely reason for the increase, at least locally, is that communities and schools have rallied to focus attention on the issue and funnel extra support for kids who need it most, to keep them from dropping out. Some of the contributing strategies likely include the college and career guides embedded in schools by the Alaska Commission on Postsecondary Education, the University of Alaska Anchorage Trio program, a host of school district strategies, population-specific initiatives such as Anchorage Realizing Indigenous Student Excellence, which focuses on Alaska Native youth, and whole community efforts such as United Way's 90 percent by 2020, which harnesses nonprofit and even business engagement to support student achievement.

Fact is, we should be glad and grateful that efforts to increase graduation rates are succeeding. The consequences of going through life without a high school diploma are brutal, for the individual and the whole community. A Northwestern University study showed that over a working lifetime, high school dropouts in the U.S. will earn $400,000 less than those who graduate. A U.S. Department of Justice study showed that dropping out is a leading indicator for incarceration: 61 percent of inmates in the nation's state and federal prisons and local jails lacked a high school diploma. A Columbia University report concluded that moving just one student from dropout status would yield a public benefit of $201,100 in higher government revenues and lower government spending. Want to slam shut doors of opportunity, and shove kids (and communities) toward poverty, crime and incarceration? Then do nothing to redirect kids falling through the cracks.

Clearly, we should continue to help students complete their degrees. Yet, as important as the diploma is, our system of educating has failed if students are ill prepared upon attaining one. And data in Alaska indeed shows too much evidence of unpreparedness. Alaska students perform near the bottom in reading and math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is arguably the best national common yardstick of academic proficiency. Half of University of Alaska freshmen have to take remedial English and/or math. Half the future jobs in Alaska require postsecondary coursework, but less than one-third of University of Alaska students complete a degree within six years. A recent Anchorage Chamber of Commerce survey showed that Anchorage employers believe the majority of entry-level applicants lack basic employability skills.

What's needed to address this? In order to ready our students to graduate prepared to enter the workforce and higher education we owe them high standards and all the support we can muster, in and out of schools, to help them succeed.

Until very recently, our state standards had been set quite low, and our state academic assessment did not provide an accurate comparative gauge to Alaska students. In effect, we had been overestimating their academic competence for a very long time. Here's an example: Consider that in 2014, 70 percent of Anchorage eighth-graders scored at proficient levels in math on the state assessment, compared to NAEP's U.S. average of 32 percent. Either our Alaska kids were math geniuses, or Alaska's standards were low and out of sync. It was the latter.

Now, the state has raised the academic standards bar significantly higher. The Department of Education and Early Development has also replaced the old Standards Based Assessment with a new assessment, Alaska Measures of Progress, or AMP. AMP was used for the first time during the 2014-2015 school year and the aggregate results spun heads. To compare with the previous example, eighth-grade Anchorage math scores for proficiency ("meets standard" in AMP lingo), became 27.7 percent in 2015.

Raising standards and resetting the bar is unsettling to say the least, but it's absolutely necessary. It is a tremendous opportunity -- one we must seize if Alaska is to be great. Appropriately high standards and reliable assessment at critical points over a student's school experience are formidable tools that will greatly improve education results in Alaska over time, and imbue a high school diploma with the connotation it should have -- "ready."

The first step is to embrace the high standards. Then, we'll need to support schools to adopt practices that help students meet them. Finally, we must remember that the responsibility for preparing our children to succeed in the world is everyone's job, not just the job of educators. Community organizations, businesses and volunteers must step up alongside families and school partners to meet children's needs and help them learn.

June Sobocinski is vice president for education impact at United Way of Anchorage and is a former private and public school educator.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

June Sobocinski

June Sobocinski is vice president for education impact at United Way of Anchorage. She also is a former public and private school teacher.