Graduation Numbers Get Attention, But Don’t Fully Explain What’s Going on in Education

January 31st, 2013 · 2 Comments · Education

By Denise Tessier

Once again, Journal education reporter Hayley Heinz has gone beyond the staged announcements she dutifully reports in the Journal to delve further into what’s going on in the state’s schools.

This time, she went farther on two fronts, one of which is especially significant.

First, to her credit, Heinz followed up a celebratory high school graduation rate announcement she had reported Jan. 25 with a story four days later highlighting a sobering fact that had been omitted from that announcement and downplayed when she talked to education officials about it. That is, that the graduation rate rose after a change in policy that required the class of 2011 to pass a state High School Competency Exam, while the class of 2012 had no such requirement.

This follow-up reporting added some important context to the “H.S. Graduation Rate Soars” story the Journal had prominently played at the top of Page One just a few days before.

But second, and even more significant, is that after having already written that story about the state’s graduation rates, she still decided to cover Albuquerque Public School’s news conference on its own rates in particular. There, she learned something that hadn’t been mentioned when state Education Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera and Gov. Susana Martinez had trumpeted improvements in graduation rates for the whole state.

Heinz learned that while most Albuquerque high schools, too, saw improved graduation rates, two schools – Valley and Manzano – had declining rates. She talked to the principals to find out why, and the short answer she got was that students in these schools have been transitioning into poverty over the last four years.

From Heinz’s blog, which did not appear in the print version of the Journal:

Within the past two years, Valley and Manzano have both been designated “Title I” schools for the first time. Title I is a federal designation for schools where at least half the students qualify for lunch subsidies. . . . Valley received the designation last year, and this year Manzano became a Title I school. . . .

What Heinz concluded as “interesting and important” about this is that:

There are schools in APS, like Rio Grande and West Mesa, that have been Title I schools forever. They have always been located in parts of town with relatively high rates of poverty, and those schools are making gains. Then there are schools like La Cueva and Volcano Vista that simply don’t have such high levels of poverty to contend with.

Valley and Manzano fall in between, and their demographics are changing. Therese Carroll, the principal of Manzano, said significantly more students at Manzano have been living in poverty since the beginning of the recession in 2008.

. . .She also said another thing . . . about the difference between generational poverty and new poverty. Both are hard on kids, but she said poverty “has its own kind of drama, on families that are newly poor.”

Contemplating this, Heinz said she has thought “a lot about schools where many students come from generational poverty, but have spent less time thinking about schools like Valley and Manzano. I think places like this merit more attention.”

Her observation as an education reporter speaks volumes about where our policymakers should be paying attention as well.

It’s interesting that these kind of contemplative pieces are only accessible to those who seek them out online. It’s the nature of journalism – itself in a transition – and it’s what we’ve got right now.

But there’s a contrast that’s noteworthy about the impression readers of the print version of the Journal likely got in reading Heinz’s Jan. 25 story on the state’s official announcement about New Mexico’s high school graduation rates. The news – that rates had jumped to 70 percent in 2012 from 63 percent in 2011 – was given prominent play at the top of Page One.

Martinez was quoted in the very first paragraph that she was “thrilled to see this progress” and the story ran with a photograph of Skandera announcing the numbers. With all the comments Martinez has made about education in the run-up to the Legislature’s current session, it would be easy to assign credit to Martinez and her administration for this improvement.

In fact, the Journal did just that in its Monday (Jan. 28) editorial welcoming the graduation rate news, saying:

Imagine what that number will be if and when education reform really takes hold — when excellent teachers who produce results are valued and rewarded, when elementary school literacy becomes standard operating procedure.

That was the underlying message coming from Gov. Susana Martinez — and, though in part and not as directly, from Albuquerque Public Schools Superintendent Winston Brooks.

This is direct Journal support for two of Gov. Martinez’s main goals during the legislative session – that laws be passed that would evaluate and reward teachers based on student success, without considering whether that success is being thwarted by poverty, and mandatory retention for third graders not reading at grade level, without providing for mitigating input from teachers or parent. Both proposals have been met with resistance from some educators and legislators.

Then the editorial quoted Brooks as giving the Public Education Department “a lot of credit” for making educators feel accountable, adding, as the official position of the Journal, that :

PED and Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera do deserve credit, as do all the teachers and administrators who have embraced changes that put student achievement first.

Typically, there’s a bit of a generic quality to the editorial in praising all who “put student achievement first.” But coming as the “walk-off” of an editorial on improved graduation rates, it also implies Skandera had something to do with those rates — a bit incongruous, considering that gauging of high school graduation rates is a four-year process, tracking students from their entry as freshmen to the end of their senior year. Martinez took office as governor two years ago and appointed Skandera to lead the Public Education Department after that.

And while the graduation rates are good news for New Mexico – as Albuquerque educator / House Education Committee Chair Mimi Stewart indicates in this New Mexico in Focus clip filmed during the Legislature — there’s a bit of context missing in assigning all this credit to Martinez and PED.

In this case, the context is that in the days prior to New Mexico’s announcement, national stories already had appeared saying high school grad rates were up nationwide, with the Associated Press saying the rates were the highest since 1976. By neglecting to mention that New Mexico’s good news is reflective of a broader national trend, the Journal might leave some impression (especially with Gov. Martinez featured in the first paragraph) that New Mexico’s overall-rate-improvement news can be credited to her.

Quoting a U.S. Education Department report, the Huffington Post noted that graduation rates, while up to a rate of more than 78 percent overall, varied among the states, with New Mexico near the bottom:

Vermont led the pack with a graduation rate of 91.4 percent, followed by Wisconsin at 91.1 percent and North Dakota at 88.4 percent. Most Northeastern states came in at between 75 and 90 percent. California and Texas, the two most populous states, came in between 78 and 79 percent. The state with the lowest graduation rate was Nevada, with 57.8 of its students graduating on time. New Mexico, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia and South Carolina also came out on the bottom.

The Huffington Post also reported that nationwide, graduation rates among Hispanics had jumped by 10 percent, to 71 percent, which is a point higher than New Mexico’s overall graduation rate.

In fact, this last statistic shows that Hispanics fared better nationally than in New Mexico, thanks to another blog Heinz posted the day of her front-page “good news” story about graduation rates.

In “The Other Achievement  Gap,” which appeared only online, Heinz delved further into the statistics and noticed that:

. . .there’s a 10-point gap between boys and girls in New Mexico. Boys have a graduation rate of 65 percent, while girls have a rate of 75 percent. That’s just as wide as the gap between Hispanic (67 percent) and Anglo (77 percent) students, which has rightly been the subject of extensive concern in New Mexico.

Noting that, “Some places, including here in Albuquerque, have dabbled in single-sex classrooms,” Heinz concludes that:

In any case, I don’t know the answer to any of this, but the gender gap in the graduation rates really jumped out at me, and probably merits further reporting and a future story.

I, for one, look forward to that.

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