Councilmember Cheh’s Full Statement at the Roundtable on Graduation Rate Accountability

December 15, 2017

As you know, the impetus for today’s roundtable was news that a large percentage of Ballou High School’s 2017 graduates had actually failed to meet requirements to be eligible to graduate. While I hope that the testimony provided by DCPS today will shine light on how so many students at Ballou could graduate despite not meeting eligibility requirements, today’s roundtable discussion must not start and end with Ballou. It must not start and end with the 2017 graduating class. Ballou is just one of a number schools in the District with a large disparity between the percentage of students who graduate and the percentage of students actually prepared to enter college or the workplace.

One need only look to the District’s most recent PARCC exam scores to see the extent of this problem. DCPS categorizes students who score a 4 or greater on the English language and math PARCC exams as “college and career ready.” While DCPS saw meaningful growth this year in the percentage of students who achieved a 4 or higher on their PARCC exams, less than one third of DCPS students scored a 4 or 5 on these tests. At the same time, the DCPS graduation rate in 2017 was 73 percent. This leads me to the conclusion that we are graduating students who are not prepared for post-graduate life–and doing so with full knowledge that they are unprepared.

My suspicions were confirmed last week, at a hearing of my Committee where Dirk Keaton, an Adult Basic Education Instructor at So Others Might Eat who works with adults who illiterate or functionally illiterate, testified that:

“What I can tell you is that 90% of my students hold a high school diploma, but the median reading level of my students is around the ninth grade level, and the median math level of my students is around the seventh grade level. And I will say that the demographics have been trending younger in my program, at least.”

I can’t help but be frustrated that we appear to be heading back where we were ten years ago, when then Mayor Fenty attempted to right our education system by taking over control of District schools. Although we have seen some growth in student achievement since that time, the District’s current practices put us at risk of sacrificing that growth. It appears that the District is awarding diplomas just to move some students out of the system, rather than as a way of recognizing the students’ achievement. That approach not only diminishes the value of a DCPS diploma but, more devastatingly, it does an extraordinary disservice to our vulnerable and struggling students who need more instruction and support before they are ready for post-graduate life. In fact, think about this—we enroll students, put them through twelve years of schooling, and fail to provide them will a viable skillset, and then set them up for failure by giving them a worthless diploma. This is criminal.

I hope today’s hearing will generate an explanation for how DCPS could let this happen. I also hope to hear what DCPS plans to do for students who they find are not ready for college or a career. The answer cannot be give them a diploma and a push out the door. And it cannot be more fads, the education-speak of the day, like social-emotional intelligence or whatever. Students need skills, they need to know how to read and write and be able to make their way in a 21st century workplace. We owe our children better—much, much better.

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