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How High Is Too High For Kansas Graduation Goal?

Celia Llopis-Jepsen
Kansas News Service

Today, about three of every 20 students in Kansas fail to graduate from high school. Gov. Sam Brownback contends that in five years only one will fall short.

That would vault Kansas from the middle of the pack to rise above a level no state in the country hits today.

Education experts question if it’s realistic. The governor and the education department, they say, ask for too much too soon. After all, the early years of school weigh heavily. Work with kids learning their alphabet and colors -- as much as those studying capitalism and algebra -- can determine later who sticks it out.

And some warn that pushing for too much too fast could backfire.

Still, this week Brownback set the ambitious goal to hit the mark by 2023. The Kansas State Department of Education hopes to hit that 95 percent graduation in 2026.

“Is it going to be hard? Yes,” says Kansas Education Commissioner Randy Watson. “I won’t say it was going to be easy, but we do think it’s a realistic, ambitious goal."

The most recent figures show just shy of 86 percent of Kansas kids get their high school diplomas. That’s slightly above the national average, which is at a record high. Iowa leads the nation at 91.3 percent.

Credit Stephan Bisaha / KMUW
Note: The black line shows the average national high school graduation rate. All rates are for the 2015-16 school year. Source: Education Week, National Center for Education Statistics

“Without question, it’s going to be a tall order,” says Craig Elliot, the chair of Wichita State University’s District Leadership program.

Experts don’t know what the ceiling is for graduation rates. There will always be some people who don’t graduate, says Russell Rumberger, director of the California Dropout Research Project and a professor at University of California, Santa Barbara.

If 95 percent is within reach, he says, it won’t come in the next five years.

“That’s less realistic, I think, to do it in that short amount of time,” Rumberger says.

It’s simply hard to deliver better graduation rates quickly when so many of the factors that make a difference start at the beginning, even preschool.

“That’s not to say there’s not things that can be done in high school to get the graduation rate up,” Rumberger says. “I’m just saying to reach a really high number is going to involve more than just changes in high schools."

A rush to increase the graduation rate too quickly might actually hurt.

Watson, the education commissioner, told the Kansas Board of Regents that a fast upturn in graduation rates might signal the system is being gamed. It could reflect simply reflect a drop in standards -- perhaps in response to the pressure to meet an unrealistic goal.

Yet Watson said the target could be reached by 2023, without cheating. By tracking other measures, like how prepared students are for college, educators can keep the numbers honest.

Whatever happens in classrooms, other factors will weigh heavily. For instance, home and health issues can lead to multiple absences, a strong indicator that a student will drop out.

All those complications make reaching such a high graduation rate difficult. Even large-scale change might not be enough.

“It's very, very difficult,” says Elaine Allensworth, the director of the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research. “I’m still not sure if you can achieve it."


Stephan Bisaha is an education reporter for KMUW’s Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio, KCUR and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. Follow him on Twitter @SteveBisaha.