Aha! The Sour Cream Solution to Richmond's Graduation Rate Troubles

The graduation data released Tuesday by the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) reminds me of an old Isaac Bashevis Singer short story:

"Once upon a time the little village of Chelm found itself facing a problem: the holiday Shavuot was coming up and the town was suffering from a shortage of sour cream, a customary ingredient of the Shavuot feasts.  The Wise Elders convened an emergency meeting to address the problem.  They sat around, brows furrowed, pondering, proposing ideas, but to no avail.  Finally, the Wisest Elder of them all announced:  "I've got it!  From today forward, water shall officially be called 'sour cream' and sour cream shall be called 'water!"  The other Elders agreed that this was a brilliant solution and were rather chagrined that they had not thought of it themselves.  Thence followed much rejoicing from the grateful townsfolk, and although there were some reports of water shortages, the Elders decided they had already solved enough problems for one holiday and that they would deal with that one at another time."  
                                        Adapted from Isaac Bashevis Singer's Stories for Children

Thus it was then in the little village of Chelm, so it is now in Richmond and in urban centers throughout Virginia.  Except, in the Cities of Richmond and Petersburg, it is worse.  Much worse, because what is at stake is not how we define "sour cream," or "water," but how we define what constitutes a bona fide graduation from a public high school and how the diploma earned can be used to unlock doors that Virginia's children need to go through in order to succeed in life.  

To be sure, the "Elders" at the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) and Richmond Public Schools (RPS) Superintendent Yvonne W. Brandon and the members of the RPS School Board will claim with perfectly straight faces that they mean no harm by this semantic ledgerdemain.  But, that sort of a statement is as hypocritical as it is delusional.  Imagine the car full of drunk adults who should know better colliding with a school bus of young children.  Of course the drunk adults should have known better than run the risk of driving while impaired, but they truly "meant no harm."   Right, folks.

But, harm is done to children in our schools every time the  scores on tests are "adjusted" or "massaged" to make it appear that our kids are doing better in school than they actually are.  Study the charts on the right-hand side of this page and you will know why the recent graduation numbers are not to be believed.

Harm is done when hundreds of children are misdiagnosed with learning disabilities in order to make the school system's "scores" appear better and to mask the poor teaching the students are stuck with because their parents do not have the means to send them elsewhere.

Harm is done when it appears that the very people we are trusting to tell us the truth about how our children are being educated respond with a complicated Byzantine calculus instead of a straight-forward and simple answer.

Harm is done when we accept the state's  44 percent graduation rate for children with disabilities and Richmond's 17 percent graduation rate for children with disabilities as good enough.

Harm is done when Virginia education officials puff-up the numbers to the point that there are huge discrepancies between what they claim and what the federal education officials say.

Given the pressure that No Child Left Behind has brought to public education,  all states are charged with improving their respective high school  graduation rates.  The solution to the graduation problem will not be solved by cheap number games that insult the intelligence of anyone trying to improve public education in Virginia.  Nor will the problem be resolved if we keep handing out pieces of paper that are virtually meaningless to children who deserve better.

In Virginia,  it appears that the "Elders" at VDOE found an easy solution.  Instead of simply counting the number of regular and advanced high school diplomas awarded as the Federal Graduation Index does, they decided to create "modified," "special" and "general achievement" diplomas and to declare that these "diplomas" count the same as a standard or advanced diploma when it comes time to calculate graduation rates for the state and for the 132 school divisions within Virginia.  

TaDa!  Graduation problem solved!  Never mind that the requirements for these "diplomas" are not the same as for the standard or advanced diplomas.  Never mind that those "special diplomas" can't even get a kid into the U.S. Army, much less into college.

 Based on the numbers Virginia uses to calculate the on-time graduation rate, Virginia's graduation rate has improved!  We have plenty of "sour cream" -- so what if we have a "water" shortage!  So what if others question Virginia's definition of a diploma or their method of calculating a graduation rate?  Two years ago, Education Week claimed that Virginia's graduation rate decreased.  The Associated Press reported: 

"Virginia officials are disputing a report that says the state's high school graduation rate dropped over a 10-year period. The report conducted by the publisher of Education Week says Virginia had a 73.4 graduation rate in 1996, compared with 69.2 percent in 2006. The statistics used by Editorial Projects in Education were the latest available to compare states. Nationally, graduation rates rose 2.8 percent to 69.2 percent. Virginia Department of Education spokesman Charles Pyle said the estimates are flawed because they don't account for student mobility or ninth-grade retention. The state's own available statistics show graduation rates went from 74.3 percent in 1998 to 73.8 percent in 2006. Starting in 2008, Virginia bases its calculations from ninth grade to graduation."

Shame on anyone who makes excuses for the unexcusable lazy education that is doled out to our children.  Shame on RPS School Board chair, Kim Bridges, for her treacly and tricky answer to R-TD reporter Jeremy Slayton.  Bridges tells him that she is "disappointed" by the numbers considering that:  "Each one of our students is a precious and valuable individual, and we don't want to lose any of them and have them lose the opportunities that having a diploma will give them."

Oh, what a happy day it will be when she and her colleagues understand that prior to handing out diplomas, RPS needs to figure out how to give these kids the education they deserve.  Until then, it appears RPS and the officials at VDOE will continue to serve us that watery sour cream that they hope will fool some people into believing that our schools and our children are fine when we all know better and our children deserve better.