Educators happy, but keeping a wary eye on graduation, course failure data

New data on the success of Washington public high school students shows four-year graduation rates at an all-time high of 79.1 percent for the Class of 2016.

Every school district in Pierce County exceeded that rate, including Tacoma at 85 percent, Puyallup at 89.6 percent, Eatonville at 95.2 percent and Steilacoom at 94.7 percent.

The state average is up a full percentage point from 2015. And that single point means 1,528 more students, the equivalent of a large high school, graduated in 2016.

The graduation data, released this weekby the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, was accompanied by more sobering data on how students fare in their first year of high school, on the way to a diploma.

That data indicate that just over one in five Washington ninth-graders — 22.5 percent — failed at least one math, English or science course in the school year ending in 2016. This is the first year the state has released the ninth-grade data, but OSPI calculated the data for the previous two years. In the school year that ended in 2014, the ninth-grade failure rate was nearly 25 percent, so the rate has fallen slightly.

Among Pierce County school districts, the 2016 overall failure rate was more than 35 percent in both Bethel and Clover Park school districts, and in Tacoma it was 27.3 percent. Orting had the lowest rate, at 9.7 percent and in Puyallup, it was 11.6 percent.

The numbers are getting better, but we have a lot of work to do

Chris Reykdal, state superintendent

Educators say it’s important to keep an eye on the statistic. That’s because research has shown that failing a course during the important first year of high school can be an early sign that a student may be in jeopardy of not graduating.

“The numbers are getting better, but we have a lot of work to do,” state Superintendent Chris Reykdal said. He notes that gaps between racial and other groups in the ninth-grade data in many cases mirror those found in graduation rates.

He also sees the need for more “meaningful advising and counseling” for middle school students so that they can recognize and be prepared for the challenge of high school. A state policy aimed at that goal “can actually change lives,” he said.

Under state law, high school students in the class of 2019 — today’s sophomores — and beyond must earn a minimum of 24 credits to graduate, including four credits in English, and three in both math and science.

That means today’s high school sophomores who failed one of those core classes as freshmen have less breathing room to make up the missing credits. But school districts, including Tacoma, have added summer courses and online courses to help students catch up.

Reykdal points out that there’s some flexibility built into the 24-credit system already.

24Minimum number of credits needed to graduate for most students in the class of 2019 and beyond

“I think there should be more,” he said, noting that every student need not be locked into a college prep curriculum.

Some of the 24 credits are electives, while others are chosen by students based on their required post-high school plan.

And districts have the option of waiving some of the flexible credits for students with unusual circumstances, as defined by district policy. Some districts — including Bethel, Eatonville and Fife in Pierce County — have received permission to delay the 24-credit requirement until the class of 2021.

In addition to breakdowns by race, the data can also be used to see how subgroups including low-income students, special education students and English language learners are faring.

State officials say they are keeping an eye on the ninth-grade course failure data as an early warning system for students, along with previously released data on school discipline and chronic absenteeism. And they are urging local school districts to do the same.

Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635, @DebbieCafazzo

See a state PowerPoint presentation on graduation and ninth-grade course failure rates on the OSPI website.