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Peering behind Lincoln High’s grad rate numbers

Posted by May 27th, 2009.

Today’s Denver Post story about Lincoln High School’s soaring graduation rate seems, at first blush, to be a bit of good news — a nice way to start the day. I hope the tale the story tells is true. But I fear there are some facts lurking that the story glossed over. Here’s the story’s basic premise:

The number of Lincoln students graduating in 2008 more than doubled from 2006 – increasing to 315 from 120. The school’s graduation rate also improved to 67.9 percent in 2008 from 47.6 percent in 2006.

“For one school to increase the number of graduates by 200 students in three years is a tremendous testament to the efforts of a committed faculty and a wonderful principal,” Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg said.

Indeed. Hats off to Principal Antonio Esquibel, himself a Lincoln graduate. His continued push to get Lincoln students enrolled in college classes while still in high school (a program started by his predecessor Scot Mendelsberg, who writes for this blog) is laudable.

But wait: There’s one other key bit of information in the story. How do Lincoln students fare once they get to college? Not so well, unfortunately. At least not initially:

About 75 percent of this year’s graduating class has been accepted to college or a post-high school academic program. However, 78 percent of Lincoln students who went to college in 2006 had to take remedial courses once they got there.

The school is working on that by increasing the number of advanced- placement classes to 13, compared with six AP courses three years ago.

And  According to a January 12, 2009 article in the late, lamented Rocky Mountain News, (written by EdNews Colorado’s Nancy Mitchell):

At Abraham Lincoln High School , the number of graduates attending a Colorado college or university over three years has nearly doubled – along with the school ‘s remediation rate.

According to Nancy’s story, over the past three years, 64.3 percent of Lincoln graduates have had to take at least one remedial college course. Her story defines a remedial course as one where a student must “pay for and complete a basic skills course that does not count for college credit before they can enroll in a class that will count toward a degree.”

I hope Lincoln is lowering its remediation rate as its graduation rate goes up. But the numbers cited above are discouraging. And putting unprepared kids into AP classes won’t necessarily solve anything — though it is a good first step.

It’s a sad but understandable reality of school reform that when pressure is brought to bear on a particular issue, — graduation rates, for example — people start focusing their attention on addressing that issue. But often, they just bump the problem further down the line.  So any improvement that results is illusory.

You have to ask yourself: Are higher graduation rates real, or is the a case of “juking the stats” so some other person or institution (i.e. colleges) has to deal with it?

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5 Responses to “Peering behind Lincoln High’s grad rate numbers”

  1. Mark Sass says:

    Getting students eligible for college versus ready for college has been a problem throughout high schools. I do not think it is an issue of “juking the stats” as much as is it is an issue of curricular alignment. Our school had a curriuculum audit done by the University of Oregon last year and we found that we were not in line with what colleges expected nor required. It came down to teachers teaching content that fit their personal view of what students should know versus what they really need. Lincoln’s remediation rate for its students is probably in line with other schools.

  2. Alexander Ooms says:

    This is a very good point as to why some metrics (even outputs), without an academic context, are unreliable. As we know, there is no quality hurdle to graduation – it is a factor primarily of attendance. Lincoln’s number on the SPF are 34% growth, and 40% status, with the school ranked “Accredited on Probation.” Proficiency levels on CSAPs for Lincoln’s 10th grade show some progress for last year, but are not heartening overall (numbers are for 2006, 2007, 2008): Reading (23%, 20%, 34%); Writing (10%, 10%, 12%). Math (3%, 3%, 5%). Yes, that is a proficiency rate for 10th grade math of 5%. That made the following really interesting:

    “The biggest selling point for the school, Esquibel said, is that students can earn college credit while in high school. [...] Esquibel said 300 kids in 10th and 11th grade are taking college courses. “We can ensure two years of college can be paid for so parents don’t have to worry about that.”

    AL had 305 10th graders in 2008; at 5% proficiency, that means 15 proficient kids. Let’s assume the same for 11th grade. 30 kids are proficient in Math, yet 300 are taking “college courses”? Even with Reading, you have far more kids taking college courses than you have at 10th grade proficiency. That does not work.

    I both applaud Lincoln for it’s focus on college and the attention it is giving its students, and I cannot reconcile the difference between academic preparation and the college admissions numbers. I hope we can follow the extra 200, for their ability to function in college is a far better criteria than their ability to arrive.

  3. Kathy Hansen says:

    Even though our children graduated with High Honors from one of Colorado’s best performing districts, they both reported their HS “college” counselors, as well as counselors at the college level, were basically useless. Maybe part of the reason we are seeing these laudable results at Lincoln is that there are staff members there specifically to clarify how to untangle the web of choices that college represents.
    One thing seems to have changed a lot, and that is that kids are expected to already have selected a focus, before they begin higher education. (In contrast, I thought one of the purposes of college was to help students make this choice.) If kids are not already decided upon being an airline pilot, nurse or teacher, the college courses they take should be totally generic and interchangeable so I am wondering which courses are being offered and whether those credits are really valuable for those students — or if they are learning later that the credits don’t apply to what they’ve since decided to pursue, which would likely cause them to hesitate and falter later while they’re enrolled in college.

  4. Alexander Ooms says:

    Another point that a friend passed on: Lincoln is able served by numerous organizations focused on college prep, including the wonderful Denver Kids ( The increased success of the college placement program is quite possibly due to the efforts of these and other groups, which is very different than an improved academic practice at the school itself. I can’t vouch that this is a major factor, but it helps explain the spread between school academic performance and college placement.

  5. Kathy Hansen says:

    It sure does.
    My suspicion is that nothing has changed since I went to school in the following respect: A certain percentage of kids will be scholarship’d into admission to the best institutions — and they can be identified early on. A certain percentage will drop out, they also they can be identified early. In the middle, too many will pass away before reaching graduation age, a certain number will move or get married early, and the rest — this huge remaining middle land — is where efforts need to be focused.
    I believe this focus probably needs to be in the early years…when the guy who will eventually be elected Student Body President can already be identified, and when the girl who will be PG first is also easy to spot.

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