As high school graduation ceremonies end, a statewide analysis provides a snapshot of graduation rates for different student groups and the schools they attended.
Dr. Anabel Aportela, director of research for Arizona Association of School Business Officials and Arizona School Boards Association, analyzed data reported to the Arizona Department of Education for students who graduated high school in the Class of 2019, and she found that online instruction graduation rates are substantially lower than those of brick-and-mortar alternative, district and charter schools, as well as a significant gap in graduation rates for different student groups.
Overall, 88.8% of district school students graduated in 2019, or 60,076 of the cohort of 67,667 freshmen who started out four years earlier at all types of public district schools – traditional, online, and alternative. Meanwhile, 48.7% of charter school students graduated, or 8,423 of the cohort of 17,290 who started out at all types of charter schools – traditional, online, alternative and alternative online, according to Dr. Aportela’s analysis.
“Most of Arizona’s high school graduates are coming from traditional district high schools,” Dr. Aportela said. “The business community, which is concerned about the school to workforce pipeline, would do well to understand this and find more ways of investing in strengthening these schools.”
Arizona Class of 2019 Graduation Rate Analysis by Dr. Anabel Aportela
“One of the best ways we have discovered to get Arizona business leaders, executives and employees to work with and recognize the tremendous resource our public schools are providing is our focus on career exploration and engagement,” said Dick Foreman, president and CEO of Arizona Business & Education Coalition.
“It is amazing what happens to both the businesses, the students, their schools and really, the entire community, when these vital connections are made,” said Foreman, citing a Yuma-ABEC Middle School Career Exploration Project partnership, which has provided students with hands-on activities, presentation and expert mentoring in key occupations that lead to students connecting education to work and help them use their interests to research and evaluate career options and develop education and career action plans for high school and beyond.
“What we have demonstrated and documented over the past decade in programs such as this is that graduation rates, student academic achievement, discipline issue reductions and daily attendance all significantly improve when career exploration is incorporated into the school curriculum,” Foreman said.
“In fact, graduation rates often climb into the mid 90% range when these types of programs are fully engaged and coupled with Career and Technical Education. As an added factor, our focus tends to be on Title 1 schools, so the results are even more dramatic in many communities,” Foreman said.
Dr. Chuck Essigs, governmental relations director for Arizona Association of School Business Officials, said while he has not worked in a school district for a long time, he knows that a major flaw exists in Arizona’s public school funding formula.
“Not only do we not provide an adequate level of funding to get students prepared to graduate, we miss the opportunity to identify students in the early grades who are having learning problems and provide schools with additional resources to help those students be prepared to be successful graduates,” Dr. Essigs said.
“The time to help is not when students are seniors in high school. The time to help is earlier so that they can enter high school with the tools to graduate,” Dr. Essigs said.
“Our top performing students can compete with students in any other state. We need to invest in students who need additional support to be successful. Investing this way will make a difference,” Dr. Essigs said.
“There are so many issues that spring from the school funding conundrum that we all continually face, but with that obvious recognition coupled with the need to fully recognize student equity issues in the state funding formula, I would add that a key phrase that I wish were considered in both public and even private discussion and debate is, ‘Does this policy initiative or action create greater stability in our public schools or not?’ Stability is not underrated, and it is not boring. It is essential,” Foreman said.
“Too many times, whether we use the excuse of a pandemic, an economic downturn, or the ever-popular school reform mantra, we should always be seeking to ensure that the child behind a desk gets the support they need in a stable, welcoming and safe environment no matter where they sit and that should be the minimum expectation for every Arizona public school student,” Foreman said.
“Does the public policy you favor recognize that every student must have stability and an equitable allocation of resources to learn? No? Then my suggestion would be that you don’t do that,” Foreman said.
District & charter high school graduation rates
A closer look at statewide graduation data shows a graduation rate of 90.3% for students attending brick-and-mortar district schools, or 58,734 graduates from the cohort of 65,051 students who started there as freshmen, and a 94.3% graduation rate for students at brick-and-mortar charter schools, or 4,846 graduates from the 5,137 students who started there as freshmen.
District school online instruction programs had a 59.2% graduation rate, or 620 graduates from the cohort of 1,048 students who started as freshman, while charter school online instruction programs had a 49.7% graduation rate, or 328 graduates from the 660 students who started as freshman.
“In general, district and charter high schools look very different. Most district students attend a traditional comprehensive high school, whereas most charter high school students attend either an online charter high school or an alternative charter high school, both with much lower graduation rates than the state average,” Dr. Aportela said.
Take a look at the map in the upper right of the analysis to see district schools’ and charter schools’ graduation rates, the number of graduates, and students in the cohorts as well as how few charter schools there are outside of Maricopa and Pima Counties.
Arizona has a long history of providing funding to educational entities on a per-student basis through an equalized funding formula based on student characteristics and funding flows to where students attend public school, said Chris Kotterman, director of governmental relations for Arizona School Boards Association.
“It has worked well for us despite issues of adequate funding levels,” Kotterman said.
Programs such as results-based funding disrupt this pattern by providing additional state funding not to students, but to schools that meet certain characteristics, mainly high standardized test scores, Kotterman said.
“Many of those schools happen to be schools of choice or higher socioeconomic status schools, which says more about the mechanics of how standardized tests work than it does about school quality,” Kotterman said.
“I maintain that we would be better off funding adequately than we would be funding selectively,” Kotterman said. “Until we get to a uniformly adequate funding level, programs meant to incentivize certain behaviors just end up pitting schools against one another for a scarce resource, which is not how high quality is broadly achieved.”
Graduation rates for districts’ and charters’ online instruction are significantly lower than brick and mortar school rates, but higher than brick-and-mortar alternative schools and online alternative schools.
Alternative and online school graduation rates
District alternative instruction programs had a 46% graduation rate, or 722 graduates from the cohort of 1,568 students who started as freshman, while charter school online instruction programs had a 31.8% graduation rate, or 2,466 graduates from the 7,751 students who started as freshman.
“The four-year graduation rates are significantly lower in alternative and online schools. We know that they primarily serve students who have struggled in traditional high school setting,” Dr. Aportela said.
Alternative and online schools are designed, in theory, to better serve these students because they can focus on their particular challenges, Dr. Aportela said.
“What we don’t know, from an evaluation standpoint, is whether students are doing better in the alternative setting than they would have done in the traditional district,” Dr. Aportela said.
“Policy incentives, like results-based funding, can actually discourage traditional schools from working to keep students who are struggling and might not score as highly on standardized tests,” Dr. Aportela said.
Funding policies that rely on incentives as a means to influence behavior often have limited impact, because schools and the student populations they serve can be so different, Dr. Aportela said.
“This is particularly true in Arizona, where school choice has led to some very niche, specialized schools. Incentives, to the extent that they work, will not work for all schools because their populations and corresponding challenges are so different,” Dr. Aportela said.
Infographic by Lisa Irish/AZEdNews
Click here for a larger version of the infographic
Charter alternative online instruction programs had a 20.9% graduation rate, or 783 graduates from the cohort of 3,742 students who started as freshman. There are no district alternative online instruction programs.
The map on the lower right of the analysis shows alternative schools’ and not alternative schools’ graduation rates, the number of graduates, and students in the cohorts as well as how few alternative schools there are outside Maricopa and Pima Counties.
“The low graduation rates in alternative settings are a symptom of our failure as a state to create an adaptable education system,” Kotterman said.
Decades of policy geared toward high achievement based on narrow measures have incentivized exactly the wrong behaviors, Kotterman said.
“Schools are praised and rewarded for implementing a very specific type of instructional environment, and therefore, students who have a challenge with that environment are left behind,” Kotterman said.
If a student ends up in an alternative placement, the traditional model has not worked for them, Kotterman said.
“We are severely underinvested in meeting the needs of students with behavioral needs or other external challenges,” Kotterman said. “We only look at that systemically with special education students.”
“In order to change that, we all need to understand that some students who do not have traditional disabilities have fundamentally different needs than other mainstream students.” Kotterman said.
Meeting those needs requires resources and trust in professional educators, and both of these things are lacking in the current model, Kotterman said.
“My hope is that COVID has helped mainstream students and families understand how difficult it is to be in a learning environment that does not work for you. For some students, regular school is like that all the time,” Kotterman said.
The real issue is student engagement, Foreman said.
“What engages a student is the million-dollar question and the answer is, of course, it varies,” Foreman said. “There are so many ways to answer this with valid data and results in Arizona’s public schools, but again, career exploration seems to be one very common element in tying together core subject matter with life altering experiences.”
“When students discover why science is important, and how they use math every single day to better their lives, and how entire worlds literally open up as they learn to read better and with greater comprehension, we see remarkable results,” Foreman said.
Students’ development of social and soft skills is also critically important, Foreman said.
“Many times, I have heard business leaders say how difficult it is to engage with many job seekers who do not have relevant work experience which is significantly compounded when the opportunity to communicate with confidence and clarity is lost at the first impression,” Foreman said.
These skills are not represented in standardized testing, but are every bit as valuable to students’ future economic success as any core subject, Foreman said.
“If more business leaders would communicate these types of engagements and successes in their daily interactions with Arizona public schools to Arizona policy makers, I cannot help but think we would alter the direction of many contentious public school debates; and many are now doing just that and their numbers are growing,” Foreman said.
In addition, online schools have a problem with reporting graduation rates, because they do not serve most students full time, instead students use them to earn extra credits or to make up credits on a temporary basis, Kotterman said.
“Our largely market-based approach has produced schools of varying quality, especially in this space,” Kotterman said.
“Blended learning as a concept is not going away, and I think the state needs to take a serious look at its online schooling statutes in the next year or so, because they’re a mess right now in terms of part-time online vs. full-time online, different levels of funding, etc.,” Kotterman said. “Creating space for different instruction is great, but the rules have got to make sense.”
A look at graduation rates by student subgroups
The analysis found a significant gap in graduation rates for different groups of students in the Class of 2019.
Arizona had an overall high school graduation rate of 79.2% in 2019, with just four of the 16 subgroups having higher graduation rates – Asian students 92.72%, white students 84.21%, female students 82.63% and Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander students 82.29%.
Students in foster care had the lowest graduation rate of 44.66%, followed by homeless students at 49.64%, English Language Learners at 53.98%, students with disabilities at 67.99% and American Indian or Alaska Native students at 69.38%, students of multiple races 73.9%, low-income students at 74.24%, Black/ African American students at 75.45%, Hispanic or Latino students at 75.8%, male students 75.81%, military students 75.9%, migrant students 77.91%.
“We have got to stop pretending like where students come from doesn’t matter,” Kotterman said.
“There are low socioeconomic status students of all backgrounds all over the state, but homeless students, white students, Native students, Black and Latino students, etc. are all going to have different needs and likely need slightly different approaches,” Kotterman said.
This is why local control and professional educators are so critically important to students’ academic success, Kotterman said.
“If we invest in high-quality, professional educators, and give them leave and resources to do the work of building relationships with students, understanding their needs, and delivering appropriately differentiated instruction, we will see results,” Kotterman said.
“Is it easy? No. Is it cheap? No. But it is possible. The sooner we all admit that none of us has the right answer that will help every student, the sooner we can stop arguing about who’s got the best idea and get to work,” Kotterman said.
Specific strategic initiatives to increase graduation rates by ensuring that underachieving groups get the focus they need with an emphasis on student equity is critically important, and many major business groups – including Greater Phoenix Leadership, The Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce, the Southern Arizona Leadership Council and other large and small groups – have taken part in these efforts, Foreman said.
“Not every student begins their journey from the same starting line, but we have an opportunity to invest in these students such that we do all we can to ensure they wind up at the finish line with their peers and ready for their next step, whatever that may be,” Foreman said.
Foreman said he sees greater initiatives in Arizona’s not too distant future, which “will deal much more effectively with student equity with significant and welcome business engagement on a much broader scale.”