Graduation rates at D.C. schools have rapidly improved in the past five years, but other measures indicate students are not gaining the skills needed to be successful in college.
Education experts are concerned that low scores on exams meant to gauge college preparedness and low college graduation rates for D.C. students indicate District schools are handing out diplomas to students who are not ready for postsecondary opportunities.
The gap between college success and high school graduation is so vast that the D.C. State Board of Education will review graduation requirements to determine whether changes are needed to ensure students will be able to obtain a college degree or a job after graduating high school.
“I think it’s really important that we, as a city, discuss what we truly want the diploma to convey,” said Laura Wilson Phelan, a State Board of Education representative for Ward 1 and the co-chair of the task force that will review the graduation rates.
To earn a diploma, a student must complete 100 hours of community service and earn 24 credits, including four each in math, science, English and social studies.
In 2016, 69 percent of seniors graduated within four years, up 10 percentage points from 2011 when 59 percent graduated within four years. But other data points do not show strong gains.
About a quarter of students in the school system meet math and reading standards on the computerized Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) exams, which the District uses as a predictor of college readiness. Educators are also concerned that college graduation rates for D.C. students are low. In 2015, District officials estimated that 56 percent of students who graduated from high school in 2008 did not finish college within six years.
Those statistics, along with the average SAT scores and the number of students passing Advanced Placement exams, concerned some members of the state board.
“It might be it has nothing to do with the graduation requirements themselves or it has a lot to do with the requirements,” Wilson Phelan said.
A spokeswoman for D.C. Public Schools declined to comment on the planned review. A spokeswoman for the D.C. Public Charter School Board, which oversees the District’s charters, did not return a request for comment.
The state board’s role in the District was dramatically altered after schools were put under mayoral control a decade ago. Instead of being the governing body for the school system, overseeing budgets and operations, the board now sets broad policies that govern graduation requirements, academic standards and teacher qualifications.
David Tansey, a math teacher at McKinley Technology High School, wants the board to emphasize mastery of content, rather than requiring more credits.
Students are required to earn four math credits, and Tansey said math teachers like him often have to move their lessons along even if students do not understand all the concepts.
“How can we make sure students are mastering the content they are given, rather than just giving them more of it?” Tansey said. “We should set up graduation requirements that demand depth rather than breadth.”
The 26-member group plans to present recommendations by the end of February.