Higher graduation rates need footnote

A helpful reminder: Don’t believe everything politicians tell you. That’s advice for all seasons, but it’s especially relevant to current bragging going on about Mississippi’s graduation rate.

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, during an appearance in Columbia August 16, said, “When I was elected lieutenant governor, the national average for graduation rates was 82 percent. In Mississippi, five years ago, it was at 70.5 percent. Today, the most recent statistics show that the national rate is still 82 percent, but in Mississippi, our graduation rate has increased to 80.8 percent. We’re not quite at the national average yet, but our trajectory seems to indicate that we’ll get there in the next year or two and it should continue to improve.”

Reeves is all-but-assured to get the Republican nomination for governor in 2019, and this will undoubtedly be a part of his stump speech.

His statements mirror remarks made by State Superintendent of Education Carey Wright earlier this year when she announced the graduation rate had risen for the third straight time.

“I congratulate the school districts who continue to set high expectations for students, and I’m pleased that students are encouraged to pursue their dreams of either college or direct entry into the workforce. They realize the key to future success is a diploma,” Wright said in a statement.

And Gov. Phil Bryant in an op-ed in January in The Hill, a Washington newspaper, said, “Our high school graduation rate is higher than it has ever been.”

All of those statements are true, fair enough, but they’re also misleading. That’s because they fail to point out one crucial point: The graduation rate has risen only after the state weakened the standards for what it takes to earn a diploma.

Here’s the background: In the past, to graduate students had to pass standardized tests in four subjects: algebra I, U.S. history, biology and English II.

But beginning in 2015, the state dropped the subject-area test requirement. The new policy says performance on the test “shall be considered, along with the overall course grade.” The score on the subject-area test counts for 25 percent of a student’s grade so a student can fail the test but pass the class and still graduate.

So an objective standard — score on a standardized test — is replaced with a subjective one — their grade in a class. Certainly, many teachers have the integrity to require students to actually learn the material to earn a passing grade, but some don’t.

And the numbers bear that out. The timing of dropping the test requirement coincides exactly with the steady increase of the graduation rate. It was at 74.5 percent in 2014, the last year passing the tests was requisite. It’s now jumped to 78.4 percent, 80.8 percent and 82.3 percent in the past three years.

How much of that increase can be attributed to the lowered standards? It’s not clear. The state does not publish the number of students who failed at least one of the tests and still graduated. I’ve filed a public records request for that data and will follow up with what I receive.

It’s disappointing, but not surprising, that public officials boast about the improvements without telling the full story.