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WV graduation rates don't show if students are ready for college

On Friday, school leaders from across West Virginia filled the upper rotunda of the state Capitol. State officials honored 68 high schools that had at least a 90 percent graduation rate for the most recent school year.

School leaders received plaques to commemorate the achievement. An inscription on the plaques read, “We commend your efforts and expectations to support every student graduating from high school fully prepared for college and careers.”

Before Friday’s event, the state Department of Education also praised West Virginia’s high graduation rates in a handful of news releases.

Despite the praise, a school’s graduation rate isn’t a sure predictor of how ready students are for college. Some of the West Virginia high schools with the best graduation rates also have a high percentage of students who aren’t prepared to take entry-level math and English classes in college, according to data from the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission.

The Gazette-Mail compared HEPC data, which shows the percent of students who graduated in the spring of 2016 and went on to need remedial classes at one of the state’s public colleges, with state Department of Education data on graduation rates for the same year.

For about half of the 68 schools the state honored Friday, at least a third of their college-going students weren’t ready for college-level math or English, data shows.

In Logan County, about 1,800 students are split among three different high schools. Of the spring 2016 graduates who went on to one of West Virginia colleges, 61 percent needed remedial classes.

But for that same graduating class, Logan County’s graduation rate was 91.6 percent, higher than the state’s graduation rate for that year of 89.8 percent, according to the education department’s online data portal.

At Man High School, the smallest of the county’s three high schools, 95 percent of students graduated on time, but 68 percent of those students who went on to a public college in West Virginia needed remediation.

By contrast, East Fairmont High School had a graduation rate of 94.6 percent, marginally lower than Man. But only 5 percent of college-going students from East Fairmont needed remediation.

Michele Blatt, assistant state schools superintendent, said a school’s graduation rate is important not only to know how prepared students are for the workforce or for college. She said it’s also a good predictor of students’ quality of life.

“We also have a lot of research that educational attainment is a key predictor for health, mortality, teen pregnancy, crime — it’s just, there’s so many things they’ve been able to link to success at graduating high school,” Blatt said “It really is the quality of life for the students, which in turn impacts the quality of life for West Virginia and what our future looks like.”

Blatt said, to make more West Virginia high school graduates ready for college, state Schools Superintendent Steve Paine wants to increase communication between college and high school instructors to better align their curriculum to prepare students for higher-level learning.

State regulations set rules for what students end up in remedial classes. Students need to take remedial math if they score below 500 on the math section of the SAT, or remedial English if they score below 480 on the English section of the SAT. (The state Department of Education recently selected the SAT as the new statewide assessment for high school juniors.)

“I wouldn’t call it teaching to the test because with the SAT, you’re really measuring the content a student’s gotten [in grades] seven through 12,” Blatt said. “It’s really more the high level of, what are the key things they need to know, how do they need to comprehend and be able to answer questions, and then what are the skills they need to be successful in math?

“With the SAT being so comprehensive, I see it being less likely than in the past of teaching toward the test, you’re actually teaching to ensure the student has the skills they need to be successful.”

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