The state of Kentucky touts its high school graduation rates as signs of the successes of its public schools. In fact, in the most recent rankings of all fifty states done by US News, Kentucky is ranked 9th in graduation rate. A high graduation rate is hardly an accurate gauge of a schools’ performance. Simply put, Kentucky’s inflated graduation rate means very little when several other important metrics drag far behind.
Starting in 2012, Kentucky added a college and career readiness measure to their Unbridled Learning accountability system. The Kentucky Department of Education has set forth a “variety of indicators” to determine graduates readiness. A 2013 report by Achieve credited Kentucky with having college and career readiness policies that are more comprehensive than most states.
Despite creating a “rigorous” college and career ready program, high school students are hardly reaching ACT benchmarks. In 2014, only 62% of graduates were college or career ready. In that same year, only 59% of graduates made the ACT English benchmark, 37% for Reading, 31% for Math and only 29% for Science. Only 19% of graduates reached the benchmark in all subjects. Kentucky is below the national average on every single benchmark. With an average composite score of 19.9, Kentucky finds itself above only 7 states. In 2013, 89% of Kentucky’s ACT-tested graduates aspired to enroll in postsecondary education. However, only 55% did enroll from that graduating class.
The story is even more startling for the low income students of Kentucky. In 2013, Kentucky graduated the highest percentage of low income students in the nation at 84%, an unprecedented feat. Of the 2014 graduating cohort, 48.3% came from low income families. However, only 21% of those eligible for free or reduced lunch met ACT benchmarks. Inexplicably, in thirteen districts around the state low income graduation rates were higher than non-low income students. How is Kentucky so successful at graduating low income students even though so many do not make ACT benchmarks?
We recognize that college, and college ready statistics are not for everyone. Kentucky should be able to graduate students ready for the workforce, yet again they fail to do this. Kentucky ranks 44th in workforce participation, 45th in economic opportunity and 46th in household income. In 2015, Kentucky had an unemployment rate of 13.2% for those under 25 and a 23.3% underemployment rate.
If Kentucky truly wants to make good on its investment in students it needs to raise the bar. Our standard should be excellence. Kentucky needs more of its own students attending college, getting good paying jobs and growing the state’s economy.
Graduation rates shouldn’t be the only indicator of successful schools. Massachusetts, usually agreed as the beacon of a successful school system in the nation, ranks number one in college and career readiness. Their graduation rate, lower than Kentucky’s, only ranks 19 overall.
Graduating students, and especially at risk students is important, but there are other more reliable metrics that we should put our focus on.