Wednesday, August 17, 2011

13 Years of School and No Diploma?: Non-Grad Completers

In addition to local graduation requirements, students in Massachusetts are required to pass the MCAS test in order to graduate from high school. Although they are given 5 opportunities to pass the exam, some  students still do not reach the proficient mark leaving many frustrated and/or discouraged. There is a population that does leave school rather than take the MCAS a 3rd, 4th or 5th time with the possibility of failing again;  some obtain GEDs while others dropout of school entirely with less than a high school education. In addition to high school graduates, dropouts and those who seek a GED, there is a fourth group of students. "Non-grad completers" are students have successfully completed school according to local requirements, but their MCAS test scores (scores lower than 220) prevent them from receiving an official diploma. Instead these students sometimes receive what is called a 'certificate of attainment' which indicates that they have met all graduation requirements aside from standardized testing. Specifically, non-grad completers are students who either:

a) earned a certificate of attainment
b) completed local graduation requirements but whose district does not offer a certificate of attainment
OR
c) students with special needs that reached the maximum age (22) but did not graduate.


So, who is more likely to be a non-grad-completer?

Students in low income communities seem to have more difficulty passing the MCAS than students in higher income communities due to a number of factors including a higher number of school absences (see here).  Perhaps, partly as a result of this, low income communities see higher numbers of students who either dropout or seek a GED, but also have a higher number of non-grad completers.  Below are the non-grad completer, GED and dropout rates for Lynn, Lawrence, Holyoke, Lowell, Chelsea and Brockton for the 2009-2010 school year. The percentage of low income students in these communities ranges from 72.25% to 87.1%; the percentage of children (under age 18) living below the poverty line ranges from 19.4% to 41.7%.



Lynn
Lawrence
Holyoke
Lowell
Chelsea
Brockton
Non-grad Completer
2.3
4.1
3.7
2.1
1.8
1.1
GED
3.8
4.4
2.8
2.3
3.8
3.1
Dropout
16.4
26.6
28.4
13.6
25.1
17.5

In terms of actual numbers this translates into:



Lynn
Lawrence
Holyoke
Lowell
Chelsea
Brockton
Non-grad Completer
26
41
20
18
7
13
GED
43
44
15
20
15
38
Dropout
184
263
152
119
98
213


From this, we see that while there is a percentage of students that are non-grad completers, this number is not substantial across the board. Brockton, for example, has a tiny percentage of its students receive certificates of attainment while Lawrence and Holyoke see a slightly larger number of students leave school as non-grad completers. The percentage of students who dropout of school completely seems to be a more significant statistic than the percentage of students who receive certificates or GEDs. The dropout rate in these communities is as high as 28%. This may indicate that some students may opt to leave school rather take the MCAS multiple times or complete the 12th grade without a diploma. The Massachusetts Department of Education does also have a board of Appeals for students who meet certain requirements such as taking the test 3 times and attending school 95% of the time, but many students likely become demoralized by the education and do not pursue this option. As a result, there is a considerable population of students in each of these cities that complete their secondary education with a certificate of attainment instead of a diploma.

In order to assert that students in low-income communities are more likely to be non-grad completers,  one would have to know what the numbers are for high income communities. Below are the non-grad completer, GED and dropout rates for selected high income communities in Massachusetts also for the 2009-2010 school year. The percentage of low income students in these communities ranges from 3.4% to 5.9%; the percentage of children (under age 18) living under the poverty line ranges from 1.8% to 4%.



Wellesley
Weston
Dover-Sherborn
Andover
Concord-Carlisle
Non-grad Completer 
0
1.1
0
0
0.6
GED
0.7
0
0.6
1.1
0
Dropout
0
0.6
0.6
1.1
0.3


Here we see an almost non-existent population of students who leave high school with just a certificate of attainment. This is consistent with overall graduation trends in these communities as a small number of students either obtain a GED or dropout of school all together.

From this we can reasonably say that you are more likely to be a non-grad completer if you attend a school in low income city or town. Are there other risk factors such as limited English proficiency or race? Looking at the data for selected populations reveals no general answer to this question; it largely depends on the city in which the student resides. For example, a larger percentage of African American students in Lowell (7.5%) and Lawrence (8.7%) leave high school as non-grad completers while the percentage of African American non-grad completers in Holyoke and Chelsea is zero. On the other hand, special education students in Holyoke

While it is interesting to note how many students graduate with certificates of attainment and what the demographics of this population are, it would more useful to know what are the psychological effects of 'graduating' without a diploma. One can only imagine how difficult or frustrating it would be to complete 13 years of schools, but walk away with only a certificate because of a test score.  More importantly, how does this non-grad completer status affect the overall trajectory of the student's life? He or she technically does not have a high school degree, so where does that leave him or her in terms of applying for jobs or college? Students who do not pass the MCAS do have the opportunity to complete educational proficiency plans (EPP) in order to graduate, but all of this is based on a test which studies show to be an unreliable measure of one's knowledge and abilities. Indeed, testing can be important to gauging how much information a student has retained and what areas or topics need more focus, but more thought needs to be put into the punishment aspect of standardized testing. While students who have proven themselves to be poor students probably should not receive a diploma, it seems unfair that a student who complied with every other requirement including those related to attendance still could not receive the diploma he or she has worked 13 years to receive.

*All data taken from: www.doe.mass.edu

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