Are Rising Madison School District Grad Rates Something to Celebrate?

Anna Welch:

The Madison District has seen graduation rates improve. But, it remains unclear if those students are prepared for college and career. Students who are not adequately prepared before they graduate often pay the price in college.

In 2016, Act 28 took effect requiring the UW Board of Regents to submit an annual report to the Legislature. The reports identify Wisconsin high schools that graduate six or more students who require remedial courses in English or math upon admission to a UW system school.

Students enrolled in remedial coursework at UW schools pay full tuition prices but do not earn college credit for those classes. This extends their college graduation dates and increases their college costs. Tuition prices at UW system schools range from $5,186.00 per year to $10,534.00 per year for Wisconsin residents.

In 2015, 33 percent or one-third of Madison La Follette students attending UW colleges required remedial coursework in math. About 11 percent of East High students needed remedial coursework.

The following year, 26 percent of La Follette students required remedial coursework in math at their UW schools. At East High and West High nearly 14 percent of graduated students required remedial math coursework in college.

Retention of college students of color is a much talked-about issue at UW-Madison and other colleges across the country.

Lowering the Bar

Longtime Education Activist Laurie Frost and other local education watchers worry about the long-term ramifications of lowering academic standards, especially for students of color.

“Again, I’ll say, maybe not consciously, but lowering bars doesn’t do anyone any favors—especially the students, and especially students of color,” Frost said.

Education experts evaluating the significance of rising graduation rates cite a need to examine credit recovery programs. According to NPR, about nine out of 10 U.S. school districts provide some form of “credit recovery” to give students a second chance to earn credit for previously failed or uncompleted courses.

“We should all be very concerned that pressures to pass students, credit recovery programs, a lack of academic challenges and other things may be in play,” Mertz said. “African American students may be disproportionately impacted by a simplistic emphasis on graduation rates at the expense of learning and preparation.”

In a phone interview, an online program specialist for MMSD said Madison students who fail courses can take credit recovery courses on the recommendation of their school counselor. These courses are typically offered online through a program called Apex Learning. But students enrolled in online credit recovery courses are also paired with a teacher to build relationships and help them manage their work. There is no limit to how many times students can take the same credit recovery course until they pass.

“Some of these credit recovery programs frankly aren’t terribly rigorous and aren’t preparing students well for what’s next,” Daria Hall of The Education Trust, an education research and advocacy non-profit, told NPR reporters.

Madison has long tolerated disastrous reading results.