Student statistics can be manipulated

opinion

Another news report confirms what many public school educators have long known: The pressure to boost high school graduation rates has inspired what some of us might like to call “grading flexibility,” but would be more accurately referred to as gutted expectations and outright scams.

The Washington Post reported last month that, in Maryland’s largest school district, seniors routinely miss weeks of classroom learning and yet still receive course credit and graduate. How did we get to the point where a student in Montgomery County can miss more than 50 classes in just one semester and still get a diploma? 

Or, in Los Angeles where I teach, students can fail a somewhat rigorous academic class and make it up with a watered-down online class? Or, throughout the country, we see graduation rates rise while academic achievement stagnates or falls? 

Mostly, this is the result of people who work behind desks in offices ordering people who work behind desks in schools to raise graduation rates. Meanwhile, they fail to provide schools with adequate resources or fail to consult with those of us who actually work in the classroom. Rather than help kids, this kind of fake leadership leads to educational relativism and the outright fraud that always happens when numbers become more important than people.

Student lives often happen outside of school

As a rookie teacher in 1992 Los Angeles, we were forbidden from considering student attendance in calculating grades. I understood. Partly it was expediency, but there was a logic and even some humanity to that rule.

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Many kids have complicated lives. They get very sick. They get shot. They have mental and physical breakdowns. They get pregnant. They go to work to help keep their families off the street, or they stay home to take care of younger siblings while their parents work three jobs, visit a sick grandparent in another state or another country, go to jail or get deported.

If a student is willing to work hard to overcome the disadvantages that come from missing so much class, we ought to commend that student, not sanction him or her for daring to minimize our involvement in their education.

So how much does it matter how much a student attends school?

It matters financially in those states that fund schools based on average daily student attendance. I used to like to think of myself as a salesman — hawking literature and the beauty of language and the power of written expression, but the product most important to my school and school district is student in-seat attendance.

Of course, it ought to matter whether students come to class. If students can learn as much without being in school, then how valuable are we? Years ago, the son of a friend of mine told me that during a teachers’ strike, he stayed home and read books and learned more than he had before or after the strike, but I’m not sure how many students spend much time in self-directed reading during teacher strikes or any other time. Still, it does seem a bit self-serving for us to assert our value by offering contempt to the students who can’t or don’t wish to attend our classes regularly.

Perhaps we ought to ask ourselves exactly what a high school diploma should represent and how school success ought to be measured?

Knowledge without imagination

We want students to know things and be able to do things. Not that there is much agreement about what those things are. At the very least, we want our students to not become a burden (or menace) to society. It doesn’t hurt if they become free-thinking and informed citizens who can participate in self-government. Ideally, we are preparing students to be responsible adults, knowledgeable and skilled enough to be able to matriculate into college, disciplined enough to finish college and then hold a job.

Regular school attendance demonstrates one of the most employable attributes: an ability to endure hours of tedium and a lot of annoying people. On the other hand, finding ways to successfully avoid school might demonstrate resourcefulness and independence.

Perhaps we can find a way to make school less tedious and make ourselves and the student experience less annoying — and cure some of the toxicity. I suspect that if we made school optional and had to attract students by making our classes more compelling, we might actually win back some of those chronic truants.

The entire structure of our ossified compulsory education system is pretty devoid of imagination. You feel that lack of imagination in the culture of high-stakes testing, hear that lack of imagination in the passing bells, see it in the reluctant gait of students and the vexation of teachers and hall monitors fussing at them to hurry to class.

Whether a student is a “good kid” or a”bad kid” is the extent to which he or she is understood. Motivated or unmotivated. We just don’t do a very good job at recognizing the intellectual, emotional and philosophical diversity of our students.

Data doesn’t tell us everything

I could name a dozen or more graduating seniors who mostly wasted the last year of high school. I’m not referring to illiterate or unskilled kids the system has failed. These young men and women can read and write and know about as much as they are going to know for now. They have plenty left to learn, but they are tired of school (most have been for a while) and have no interest in being students anymore. They would be better off working full-time, earning money for themselves and their families, until they see how having a limited education places a ceiling above them. Then they might enroll at a junior college with a new understanding of the value an education. Circuitous paths often lead to meaningful lives — but they don’t render politically expedient data.

Just as many of our graduating seniors aren’t ready to leave us yet. Not only because they have more to learn but because they have come to rely on us for emotional and psychological support rather than their either unsupportive or nonexistent families. 

Our society quite rudely dispatches lost children. We fuss over them (or at least their academic records) until we can check off the right boxes and scoot them aside. It’s an assembly line that works fine for some kids but, as usual, the one-size-fits-all approach is failing a lot of our most vulnerable students. So far, we’ve lacked the collective imagination to do better by them.

It is time to stop being infatuated with numbers. Data can be a useful tool, but accountability cannot be graphed or charted; it can only be achieved inside the minds and souls of our students.

Larry Strauss, a high school English teacher in South Los Angeles since 1992, is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and the author of more than a dozen books, most recently “Students First and Other Lies” and, on audio, “Now’s the Time” (narrated by Kim Fields). Follow him on Twitter: @LarryStrauss

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