The good, bad, and ugly from Delaware’s graduation rates

Last month, the Delaware Department of Education released the latest graduation rates for Delaware high schoolers. The data provide us mixed messages. And while the headlines painted a mostly cheery picture of an overall increase in the statewide graduation rate, a closer look shows that students of color and high-needs students (low-income students, students with disabilities, and English learners) continue to be left behind.

The Good

More students are graduating with a diploma overall — including some at-risk student populations.

The overall graduation rate increased slightly from 85 percent in 2016 to 86 percent in 2017. From 2014 to 2017, there has been an increase from 84 percent to 86 percent. During this time period we also saw gains among students of color and high-needs students.

Specifically, graduation rates for African American, Asian, and multi-racial students have increased. Students with disabilities have seen the largest increase of all high-needs groups (that is, among low-income students and English learners) — more than three percent.

The Bad

But disparities in graduation rates raise serious concerns about a lack of college and career readiness supports for high-need students and Hispanic students.

English learners are graduating at a rate 14 percent less than the state average. In fact, graduation rates for English learners have dropped by seven percent over the last four years, from 75 percent in 2014 to 68 percent in 2017. Graduation rates for low-income students are behind the state average by nine percent, decreasing by 1.3 percent since 2014. While the graduation rate for students with disabilities has increased by 3.5 percent over the last four years, they still lag significantly behind the state average. Graduation rates for Hispanic students remain five percent behind the state average, and have remained stagnant since 2014.

Equity gaps — disparities between students of color, high needs students, and their peers — are slowly closing across the state. But disparities in graduation rates across schools and districts show that major inequities remain. Across all schools serving high schoolers, overall graduation rates ranged from a low of 65 percent to a high of more than 95 percent. Within schools, major disparities by race, ability, income, and English learner status point to an immediate need for more focused and targeted supports for these students.

The Ugly

As graduation rates continue to increase, other indicators such as SAT and remediation have remained stagnant, raising questions about the quality of education guaranteed through a high school diploma

A recent report released by Achieve indicated that Delaware is one of seven states and the District of Columbia that sets the expectation that a high school diploma includes college and career readiness requirements in English language arts and math. While more students are graduating, SAT results show that less than 30 percent of students are college and career ready in math, and only 53 percent are college and career ready in reading and writing.

For Delaware high school students that graduate and go to a Delaware college or university, 41 percent are required to take remedial math and/or English courses, for which they may not receive credit.

A closer look at graduation data reveals a need for targeted supports for underserved students of color and high-need students.

Graduation data, often reported as statewide averages, can sometimes mask the reality that lots of Delaware students are struggling to earn a high school diploma. A holistic view of the data offers the opportunity to see which students would benefit from extra academic supports through a range of programs and approaches — because different strategies work for different students. College and career readiness requires high academic expectations and opportunities for career exploration for all students. Support for high school success begins early, continues through transitions to middle, high school, into postsecondary and career, and includes:

•Providing academic supports starting before elementary school. Research indicates that third grade is a critical turning point for students. A child who can read on grade level by third grade is four times more likely to graduate by age 19 than a child who does not read proficiently by that time. Delaware Readiness Teams are one example of making sure children from birth to age eight are ready for school and life.

•Adequate college and career advising for all students to help students identify their career path. Delaware Pathways can help students earn industry credentials through work-based learning experience in relevant career areas.

•Equitable access to rigorous course options such as AP and dual enrollment for typically underserved students to provide access to rigor of college-level courses and earn early college credits.

•Tying academics supports with social and emotional development for all students. College and career readiness is a whole child endeavor, and includes developing non-cognitive skills such as managing emotions, setting goals, building empathy, and responsible decision-making.

•Implementing personalized learning models (such as competency-based learning), which tailors classroom instruction to the specific needs of the students. Supporting innovative learning models like this can help meet students where they are, and ensure that they are leaving high school prepared for college-level coursework.

Shyanne Miller is a policy associate at the Rodel Foundation. She is responsible for supporting the policy team in their projects, events, research, and communications in specific areas including the Rodel Teacher Council, Delaware Education At A Glance, and personalized learning. Ms. Millere has a background in racial equity, social justice, and environmental research. She is a McNair Scholar alumna and obtained her bachelor’s degree in wildlife conservation from University of Delaware. Ms Miller is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in sustainable development with a specialization in policy advocacy and analysis from SIT Graduate Institute.

The mission of the Rodel Foundation of Delaware is to help Delaware build one of the finest systems of public education in the world by 2020.

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