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'Diploma Counts' Brings Clarity to Achievement Gap, Education Needs

June 18, 2008 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow

The key to Minnesota's future is an effective workforce. The key to creating this workforce is education, and a quality education requires coordination between early education, K-12 and higher education institutions. It also requires a cure for the achievement gap, which keeps a quality education away from some students.

Education Week has released "Diploma Counts," a look at graduation statistics across the country. Minnesota's rankings, typically high among the states, show some wear.

While white students perform above the national average, other groups don't fare as well:

The problem is statewide: In Rochester, about 75 percent of students are white. Of all students, 22 percent of them -- more than half are white, middle class students -- don't do math or read at grade level. Only about one third of Rochester's students failing reading and math are low income; are minority or are learning English as a second language.

The district has launched a five-year initiative to tackle the achievement gap. Superintendent Romain Dallemand told Minnesota Public Radio that one goal is to raise expectations for these students. The district will incrementally wipe out remedial classes, get kids and parents more involved and bring all kids up to grade level within five years.

In St. Paul, school leaders are taking aim at the achievement gap through the Transitions Initiative, a program to bring together community leaders, the mayor's office and foundation officials to map out a strategy to close the gap between white students and African and black students. The gap between white and black students is the greatest, but the strategy will eventually be applied to other groups of students.

Twenty six percent of St. Paul's black students taking the state math test in 2007 performed at grade level, the Star Tribune reported. Only 36 percent were proficient on the reading test. By comparison, 67 percent of white students were proficient in math and 76 percent were proficient in reading. According to 2005 data, just 48 percent of black St. Paul Public School students graduated in four years, compared with 75 percent for white students.

"Diploma Counts" addresses the matter with its Cumulative Promotion Index (CPI), which shows the number of 9th-grade students that progress to 10th grade and so on until graduation.  The index is not perfect: states with a large population such as California and Texas are unfairly represented, as are states with small populations such as Wyoming and Vermont. But the index is a good tool to show how states stack up against one another on dropouts.

Minnesota is solidly in the middle of the pack. It is ninth in graduation percentage, with a score equal or near to Utah, Connecticut, Maine and New Hampshire.

The CPI also shows the number of students who drop out, divides the number by the number of school days and come up with the number of students lost each day. Minnesota places 25th on the list by losing 84 students each day. Massachusetts, Kentucky, Mississippi and Wisconsin all place near Minnesota.

 "Diploma Counts" also shows the importance of creating a common bond between early childhood education, K-12, and higher education - called P-16 organizations.

"Diploma Counts" warns that while many states have P-16 organizations, some are neutered by political infighting, political ambitions and neglect.

Minnesota's P-16 initiative began in 2002 as an ad hoc collection of state education leaders who wanted better communication between systems. Because it was founded by need and not by legislative fiat, Minnesota's program has weathered political storms, said Kent Pekel, the Executive Director of the Coalition for Postsecondary Academic Success at the University of Minnesota.

Since 2002, the P-16 Partnership has created systemic math and language arts curricula and has laid the groundwork for a longitudinal study that will track students from early education to college graduation.

"High school teachers who try to help students get into four-year institutions or technical schools or community colleges don't have the proper information. Everyone's flying blind. This tool will help us work better with students," Pekel said.

 "Diploma Counts" is another wake-up call that we need to address the achievement gap with gusto. Minnesotans who can't read or write well won't become productive, tax-paying citizens with good jobs. The education establishments non-inclusive mindset between early education, K-12 and higher ed. needs to morph into a seamless toothpaste tube of education in this state.  We know what the problem is. We simply have to conquer it.

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