Wilson, and DCPS as a whole, has seen a steady increase in graduation rates over the past few years. In 2011, the overall DCPS graduation rate was 53 percent, whereas in 2016 it sat at 69 percent.
There has been nationwide pressure to increase graduation rates in recent years. “With graduation rate, the question is, is it prioritizing graduating high school or is it prioritizing learning something,” said social studies teacher Jonathan Shea, who has been teaching at Wilson for 25 years.
While it’s undisputed that schools should be graduating as many students as possible, there is evidence that these numbers might not necessarily reflect a better educated and prepared student body. There are a multitude of factors that could have led to this 16 percentage point increase over the years, primarily that Wilson’s administration has focused on understanding how the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) calculates the Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate (ACGR), which is the official term for the graduation rate. Other factors could potentially include an effort to make classes easier to pass and graduation requirements easier to fulfill, as well as shifting demographics towards a higher proportion of advantaged students who would have fewer obstacles inhibiting graduation.
When students graduate from Alice Deal or Hardy Middle School, they are automatically entered into a graduation tracker, no matter if they switch to a private school, move districts, or even out of the country following eighth grade. Unless they are officially withdrawn, they count as drop-outs, which counts against Wilson’s overall graduation rate years later. One focus of Wilson’s administration in recent years has been finding these students at different schools and acquiring evidence that Wilson is no longer responsible for them, such as emails from other schools, transcripts, or affirmations from parents.
According to Principal Kimberly Martin, there were around 200 students unaccounted for on the ACGR when she arrived two years ago. Since then, the amount has been decreased significantly.
“Our registrar, Tasha Maritano, did a bang-up job, a ridiculously good job of keeping track of how many kids needed to be called, making phone calls, contacting other schools, getting those documents and sending them to OSSE, so that they can get removed from our list,” said Martin.
Other critics point to grade inflation and programs like Credit Recovery as making classes too easy to pass. DCPS’s grading system, Aspen, takes the number associated with a student’s grade, converts it to a letter for their transcript, and then converts it back to a number, which is always the highest digit in any bracket. For example, if a student is teetering between passing and failing a class, the fact that Aspen rounds up each advisory grade means some students would get credit for a class they would otherwise fail.
Aside from grade inflation, credit recovery is another reason that DCPS’ rising rates are more a result of it becoming easier to graduate. Credit recovery is an initiative put in place that allows students to make up a credit for a class they previously failed, by completing a series of online classes.
“I think it is sending the wrong message to the kids,” said science teacher Jean-Claude Nkongolo, who has been working at Wilson for four years. “Sometimes a kid is not there for the entire advisory, maybe you see them three or four times, so they get an F. Then they do two weeks of unit recovery to pass what the rest of you have done in the entire quarter, it’s not fair.”
There are conjectures that students don’t absorb the information in the same way from taking the class online, as they would in a classroom with a teacher. This, combined with the grade inflation, poses the risk of graduating students who are functionally illiterate in certain subject matter, which poses a severe problem for the future workforce of the country.
“They’ll be completely lost when they move to the next level. That’s my biggest fear,” said Nkongolo.
The final key factor influencing the climbing graduation rates is the demographic shift currently sweeping both the city and the school.
“DC gets more expensive to live in every year. How much of our graduation rate has to do with the rise of socioeconomic status of students across the city? I don’t know. I don’t think it’s something they even really want to pay attention to,” said Shea.
Martin agreed fervently, asserting that “Our demographic has changed. The socioeconomic average of our population has increased, a lot. Our percentage of African American students had decreased by 10 percent in two years. Our percentage of white students has increased probably by the same factor in the same number of years,” she said. “There’s no question.”
One of the primary correlations between socioeconomic status and academic performance is the mother’s educational experience, pointed out both Shea and Martin. An unfortunate truth in this country is that this is also correlated to race.
“It’s so funny to me that when I meet with my colleagues or I’m in different settings where they talk about school quality that they erroneously think that…what makes Wilson different from the average DC public high school, the reason why we’re different is because we have a great principal or we have awesome teachers who are working harder than every other teacher in the district,” said Martin. “While some of that may be true, that is really not the reason for Wilson being what it is. I’m happy that we’re going to have an honest conversation about that, it’s because we have more wealthy white kids.”
It’s important to note that, as previously stated, the pressure to increase graduation rates comes from the federal government, not the city or the school district. Another effect of this is the insistence that students graduate in four years, and if they don’t, they are counted as dropouts. This creates obstacles in many scenarios, because if a student is dealing with a personal issue or comes into high school from another country it’s often very helpful for them to be provided an extra year to adjust culturally and acquire all necessary credits. This has not been an option at Wilson in the past because there is so much emphasis on keeping the graduation rates climbing. Principal Martin is evaluated, in part, on her ability to continually increase the percentage of seniors graduating.
“I denied it, and I’ve denied it for multiple students who perhaps had very good personal or educational reasons for wanting another year of high school,” said Martin. “There’s too much at stake for the district, and for me, my evaluation, and for the high school to permit that to happen.”
One of the goals outlined in Chancellor Antwan Wilson’s strategic plan for 2017-2022 is to increase the district-wide graduation rate to 85 percent. However, in a media roundtable held in September, the Chancellor explained that the goal would not be raised from there.
“Once we hit 85 percent on-time graduation, we’ll want to maintain there, but we don’t have a goal for 90 percent on time graduation. Why? Some students shouldn’t finish in four. Some should finish in five,” said Wilson.
This sentiment potentially marks an optimistic change within DCPS. “It’s really refreshing to hear from a person in his position. I never imagined I would hear the chancellor of DC public schools saying, ‘100 percent is maybe not the goal,’” said Martin. This could mean that in the near future, Wilson will develop the criteria allowing students to take five years to graduate.
All the discussion of graduation rates has left Martin somewhat baffled. “I want to know, is the graduation rate important to people?” she said. “To me it feels like a metric that I am obsessed with, that my supervisors and employers are obsessed with, and that some people, maybe in the media, and some people, maybe a handful of parents, are obsessed with. And then I think it’s something no one else cares about.”
In a survey of 88 students conducted by the Beacon, 78 percent of these students said that they almost never or never think about the graduation rate, though 61 percent said that Wilson’s graduation rate was an important statistic for them.
INFOGRAPHIC BY ELENA REMEZ