Op-Ed: "The Rest of the Story" on Dennis-Yarmouth graduation rates

by Superintendent Carol Woodbury
DY Superintendent Carol Woodbury in 2013, receiving the 500th Laptops for KidZ computer from the Masonic Angel Foundation. Photo courtesy of Masonic Angel Foundation, Inc.

Every time an article about schools comes out in the Cape Cod Times I feel like I need to turn into Paul Harvey and tell “the rest of the story.”  Maybe to some this might feel like I am being defensive, but that is not the case.  Newspapers are limited in terms of how much space can be used for an article, time available to interview many people, and whether or not people return their calls.  Sometimes I truly believe that they don’t really understand the data they are reviewing and its nuances.  So, I don’t really fault the writers, but the whole story is seldom told. 

On October 24, 2016 the headline on the front page of the Cape Cod Times said, “Grad rates fall below state average.”  The first question I asked myself was why we are talking about graduation rates now.  They typically come out in January.   Is it possible the news is about graduation rates from last January? 

After reading the first line I discovered that the article was in response to President Obama’s announcement that the nation’s high school graduation rate had achieved an all-time high.  Now I understood the purpose of the article. 

Later in the article it is stated that, “every Cape high school except Dennis-Yarmouth and Monomoy did better than the national graduation rate of 83.2 percent.”   This statement is somewhat true, but the numbers to support it are not representative of the actual high school data.  The numbers used are district numbers not high school numbers.  Why is this important?  It is important because every high school has students in out of district placements.  These placements occur for a variety of reasons too complex to be discussed here.  However, these students count in district numbers but do not count in school numbers.  So, when you look at the chart below you can see the impact. 

Students in out of district placements have significant needs.  Districts do everything possible to ensure that students are placed in high quality programs.  However, we have no control over the curriculum that is delivered at these schools.  Yes, they are our students.  We are fiscally responsible for them, but we don’t have control over their education.  Often times, students are placed in these settings by other agencies and they have not received any of their education in our district.  I have no problem with accountability, but I would like to be accountable to that which I have some control. 

I openly admit that D-Y still has work to do.  We want 100% of our students to graduate in four years.  However, there is one more flaw in the article that should be pointed out.  Since the President was talking about the steady increase in national graduation rates from 2011 to 2015, the author chose two data points to focus on 2011 and 2015.  It is truly more instructive to review the year over year improvements, because in most cases improvement is not a straight line up.  In many cases, improvement takes time and goes up and down a little over time.  Looking at the chart below you can see that D-Y High School has been above the national average every year except this year, and this year is within a tenth of a point of the 2015 national average.   

See Chart 1, Below

As the chart in the Cape Cod Times article showed, many schools with lower four-year graduation rates still have a high percentage of students still in school.  Particularly in schools with high percentages of low income students or English Learners, it can take some of the students longer to finish all the requirements for graduation.  We work to get as many over the bar as possible in four years.  For those who need more time, we give it to them because having a high school diploma is so important.  The chart below shows what percent of D-Y High School students were still in school in each year during this five year period.  Assuming that all those who were still in school did graduate, the overall graduation rate would be significantly higher. 

See Chart 2, Below

Finally, when a story comes out which includes a comment about one subgroup for a particular school district it would be helpful if supporting information was provided.  The article stated, “The percentage of black students who graduated in four years from Dennis-Yarmouth fell from 66.7 in 2011 to 50 percent in 2015, according to state statistics.”  This leads the reader to think we are not addressing the needs of these students very well.  After a careful review of the details, one discovers that there were 12 black students in the 2011 cohort and eight of them graduated in four years and two were still in school.  Therefore, it is likely that two black students dropped out.  In 2015, there were nine black students in the cohort.  Five graduated in four years and one was still in school.  Therefore, it is likely that three dropped out.  Not a significant statistical difference.  However, the staff and administration of the Dennis-Yarmouth Regional School District take every drop out seriously and we will not be satisfied until all students graduate.  We know that this decision seriously affects a person’s future.  Their subgroup doesn’t matter to us.  High school graduation is the first key to a successful future.  However, the statistics that are quoted do not tell the whole story. 

In education today we are teaching our students to read critically.  We can’t just accept something that is written on the Internet or in a newspaper as true without checking the facts.  We work hard with our students to ensure they are critical readers and thinkers so they will be good decision-makers as they become adults.

Respectfully submitted by:

Carol Woodbury, Dennis-Yarmouth Regional School District Superintendent

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