The truth about black graduation rates

BY DR. RICARDO DAVIS, President, COQEBS

ST. PETERSBURG — An article in the Tampa Bay Times last month reported that graduation rates for African-American students in Pinellas County have improved “at a much more rapid rate than others.”  Superintendent Mike Grego was quoted as saying, “I am thrilled at the progress …”

In fact, the real results are not so thrilling.  Standard Diploma graduation rates in Pinellas County have actually fallen, a fact not disclosed by Dr. Grego.  The reported rise in graduation rates is entirely attributable to the creation of new ways to receive a diploma. These new “diplomas” rely on either “Waiver” or “Alternative Assessment” standards. Students who previously would have received a Certificate of Completion are now being issued diplomas under these new standards.  Meanwhile, real academic progress has not been achieved.

As an example, in the 2010-11 school year, Gibbs High School issued a Standard diploma to 54.55 percent of its black students. It also granted a Waiver Diploma to an additional 6.06 percent of black students for a total black student graduation rate of 60.61 percent. That same year, only 45 percent of graduating black students passed the 10th grade FCAT reading test.  So, for the school year 2010-11, Gibbs High School granted a Standard Diploma to 54.55 percent of its black students even though only 45 percent had passed the 10th grade FCAT reading test.

Three years later for the school year of 2013-14, the percentage of graduating Gibbs black students that passed the 10th grade FCAT reading test had fallen from 45 percent to 37 percent.  Not surprisingly, the graduation rates for black students receiving a Standard diploma also fell by about 10 percent from 54.55 to 44 percent.

One would expect graduation rates to fall when reading scores also fall, but that logic is defied by the increasing trend in Waiver and Alternative Assessment diplomas and a decreasing trend in Standard diplomas for African-American students in computing aggregate graduation rates. As reading scores went down, graduation rates went up because the students who failed reading received a diploma through Alternative Assessment or Waivers.

Using these Waiver or Alternative Assessment diplomas, the graduation rate was nearly double the rate of students who passed 10th grade reading: 37 percent passed reading versus 72.5 percent received a diploma. This result caused Superintendent Grego to declare he was “thrilled.”

It seems that in our current times, “branding” is everything. We hear about people like Trump, Clinton and Bush as “brands.”  Well, it seems that we have now re-branded our continuing failure by calling it a success. This is possible because a new “Alternative Assessment” brand of diploma was created.

In 2013-14, nearly 40 percent of the diplomas granted to African-American students at Gibbs were either Waiver or Alternative Assessment diplomas. These statistics would undoubtedly be even worse if their magnet students (who supposedly are higher achievers) are disaggregated from the school’s general population.

Pinellas School officials have now admitted that for the last three years reading scores have remained flat and math proficiency has only increased slightly. They have also acknowledged the achievement gap between black and non-black students have remained constant.  This cannot be squared with last month’s public relations release that African-American students are improving at a “much more rapid rate than others.”  It is simply not true. Of course, there was no public relations release regarding these actual facts.

This disingenuous method of presenting statistics has led the Concerned Organization for Quality Education of Black Students to declare our years-long mediation process with the Pinellas School District to be at an impasse. It has become increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to get transparent and timely information from the Pinellas County District.

The Tampa Bay Times has spent thousands of hours trying to extract and understand the data, and then to report the truth to the community.  It is not our first choice to seek court intervention, but it appears that strong court enforcement is necessary for us to get the true facts and to force a real solution to the poor academic performance of our schools and the closing of the achievement gap.

COQEBS is a non-profit community based organization founded over 15 years ago by a group of retired educators and interested citizens from Pinellas County.  COQEBS is the Plaintiff in a class action case brought under the Florida Constitution, which guarantees a high quality education to all students.  COQEBS meets on the first Wednesday of each month at the Enoch Davis Center in St. Petersburg.

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