Graduation rates tell only part of education story

January 18, 2019

The West Virginia Department of Education this month released the graduation rates for the state’s public high schools, and once again the numbers give the state something to brag about — at least on the surface.

The statewide high school graduation rate was 90 percent for the 2017-18 school year, up a percentage point from the year before and about the same as in 2015-2016, according to a report on the rates by the Charleston Gazette-Mail. The graduation rate measures the percentage of students who graduated with a high school diploma within four years of starting 9th grade.

That statewide percentage of 90 percent makes the Mountain State look good in comparison with many other states. Although a state-by-state compilation for the last school year isn’t available yet, the national average was about 84 percent previously. For comparison, the counties in West Virginia with the lowest graduation rates last year had marks of 83 percent, or nearly as good as the national average. Bottom line: West Virginia’s graduation rate ranks high nationally.

But graduation rates are but one of the many metrics used to measure educational progress, and in terms of quality of education may be one of the less useful ones. Delving into other barometers will show that the Mountain State has much more work to do.

For example, West Virginia students’ performance on standardized tests in math, science and reading tell a far less successful story. Just take a look at how well juniors last school year (the senior class this year) did on assessment tests. Only about a quarter graded proficient in math, about a third were rated proficient in science and about half were considered proficient in reading. Those are far from sparkling results.

Another telling measure is how many of the state’s high school graduates moving into higher education need to fill in the gaps of what they didn’t learn in high school. At least a quarter of West Virginia public and private high school students who graduated in 2017 and enrolled in the state’s public colleges in fall 2017 were required to enroll in remedial education classes, according to the Gazette-Mail report. College and university officials have noted that trend in recent years, and it doesn’t seem to be improving any.

Again, that data suggest that many students with a high school diploma have not gained the desired education to give them a boost in the future.

That’s why education officials, as well as the governor and lawmakers, continue to have a challenge in regard to education.

Answers for improving student achievement have been sought for years, but few signs of improvement have been evident so far. And lawmakers are looking for more answers during this legislative session, such as higher pay to attract more qualified teachers and boost the training of non-certified math teachers who are filling positions because of a lack of certified teachers.

Seeking more answers is a must. Simply having a high graduation rate isn’t enough to improve the prospects of graduates if they don’t have the necessary skills to be successful. A couple of generations ago, a high school diploma was enough to get a good job that could support a family. Even dropouts could succeed. But the world has changed, and most jobs require training or education after high school.

Simply graduating from high school isn’t enough for most people. Knowledge and skills in reading, math and science are necessary. Without these, a diploma is merely a certificate of attendance.