Upon further review

McQueen defends graduation statistic, acknowledges missteps in communication

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen is commissioner of education in Tennessee.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Thursday that more Tennessee high school graduates are fulfilling the state’s requirements than originally thought by her department.

In a memo to school superintendents, she said only 22 percent of recent graduates received their diplomas without completing the requirements. Last month, a state report put that number at 33 percent.

But she defended the original statistic, saying it reflected data available at the time.

“We know many of you have received questions from your local community about your graduates, and we understand the graduation requirement statistic has led to misunderstandings and wrong conclusions,” she wrote. “We recognize the report did not do enough to convey the extent to which districts and schools have been and are working to meet state policy on graduation requirements.”

The memo was signed by both McQueen and Wayne Miller, executive director of the Tennessee Organization for School Superintendents. Local district superintendents had asked the State Department of Education to review the startling statistic, initially released in a department report on the state’s high schools.

McQueen emphasized that no wrongdoing led to so many students missing credits. Instead, they came about from districts using state-sanctioned waivers or allowing students to substitute courses for some requirements, she said.

The commissioner also released guidance related to course data entry in an effort to minimize errors in the future.

“I know your concern on this statistic is rooted in your deep desire to ensure that every student is equipped to be successful after they leave our K-12 system, and we want to do everything we can to both support you in that mission and to provide you with data that will help you further understand how students are doing,” she wrote.

Read the full memo here:

Looking closer

That stunning statistic about a third of Tennessee graduates not meeting requirements? It’s not true

When Chad Moorehead saw that Tennessee’s education department had concluded that a third of graduates received a diploma without meeting the state’s requirements, his first instinct was to find out how many of his own students had fallen through the cracks.

“We’re so small,” said Moorehead, superintendent of Moore County Schools in Middle Tennessee. “We usually have a pretty good handle on what our kids are doing. If we’re missing something in our one high school, I want to know what it is and how to fix it.”

He quickly got an answer from the state: Only 62 percent of recent graduates in Moore County had actually met requirements.

That didn’t seem accurate to Moorehead, so he went through all of his students’ transcripts by hand. He couldn’t find a single one who had gotten an undeserved diploma.

Department officials said he was right. They had counted students who took math and English at a local community college as not having taken those courses at all.

Moorehead wasn’t the only superintendent with questions. State officials quickly started examining graduation data — and reached a new conclusion.

While state officials continue to check districts’ data, it appears that about a third of what looked like missing requirements were in fact data errors. For the remainder, students had actually been allowed to graduate without taking required courses.

That means that only 22 percent of Tennessee graduates had not met requirements, not the 33 percent originally identified by the state.

“It’s better than we thought,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told Chalkbeat on Wednesday. “It’s helping us move forward with more clarity.”

McQueen said the state is taking several steps. At the top of the list, she said, is working with the companies that manage student information to improve data entry.

But she said officials also would work with districts to make sure all students fulfill requirements. Sometimes, graduates had been improperly allowed to substitute courses for requirements. In other cases, waivers that were originally designed for students pursuing career training instead went to students who should not have been eligible, she said.

“Waivers are not meant to be used all of the time,” McQueen said.

She said she believes confusion, not wrongdoing, led to some districts overdoing course substitutions and waivers.

“These are misunderstandings that add up,” she said.

The revised report is likely to restore damaged confidence in Tennessee’s much-touted graduation rate gains. But they raise new questions about how the department is managing crucial information about the success of its schools.

“The state department did this research, they got this alarming statistic,” Moorehead said. “Why didn’t they reach out to districts to check the data and start to solve the problem before announcing it to the world?”

Correction, February 16, 2017: This version corrects that, based on current information, only 22 percent of Tennessee graduates did not meet requirements. In a previous version, Commissioner McQueen misspoke regarding the percentage of missing requirements attributed to data errors.

a new path

Legislators join chorus of calls for new graduation options in New York state

PHOTO: Seth McConnell, The Denver Post

As soon as he had the floor during Tuesday’s joint legislative hearing, Assemblyman Dean Murray of Long Island zeroed in on an issue that he said has been bothering him.

“It seems we’re basing graduation — in many people’s opinion, including myself — too much on test scores,” Murray said.

Murray is one of several legislators who latched onto an issue the State Education Department is currently tackling: How to find new, legitimate ways for students to graduate if they struggle to pass required Regents exams. The Board of Regents, New York’s education policymaking body, opened up several new options last year, but support from legislators is key if the state wants to make more options broadly available.

“The opportunities to look at different approaches to graduation are important,” State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said during testimony. “That, of course, takes funding.”

The state is interested in piloting “project-based assessments,” which would evaluate students on a series of tasks, or tests that assess foreign language skills. But developing those alternatives requires money. (The Board of Regents sets education policy, but state lawmakers control the budget.)

Though some lawmakers expressed support for new graduation options at Tuesday’s hearing, securing funding is likely to be a battle. The Regents asked for $13 million to explore these pathways, but Cuomo’s proposal did not include that funding.

The Regents’ interest in expanding graduation options stems from concerns that deserving students are falling short of the state’s requirements.

A 2012 state decision required students to pass five Regents exams with a score of 65, instead of the previously required 55, to receive a traditional diploma. In 2014, the Regents provided a buffer of sorts by deciding students could substitute a fifth required Regents exam for an alternative route in an area like the arts or career and technical education.

Last year, they went even further. In March, they decided students could swap out a final Regents exam for a skills certificate and in June, state officials made sweeping changes to graduation requirements for students with disabilities. Under the new rules, some students with disabilities could earn a “local” diploma by passing only the math and English Regents exams.

But without more widely accessible exams, those students may find there are only limited options at their schools.

Elia gave some clues during her testimony about the direction the state education department is headed. She said she is “very interested” in piloting portfolio-based tests and suggested the state is also looking into creating new science assessments.

Any mention of additional options is music to the ears of Senator Todd Kaminsky, who has been a leading legislator calling for more ways to help students graduate. Kaminsky hosted a panel recently in Long Island attended by Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa, and urged state officials to continue down their current path.

“When you talk about 400-plus lives being improved by your measures that’s great,” Kaminsky said, referring to the number of students with disabilities who graduated under the new provisions passed in June. “I just want to let you know that people are now hoping for a next step, or a follow-up step this year, as a way to recognize the potential of all students.”