MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - Recently new comparisons of graduation rates around the nation were released, and Alabama's public school students showed the second highest improvement in the nation. That's a good thing, right?
Well, yes, it is. But the state should not get too carried away with celebrating improvements in the rate that students graduate; at least not until Alabama students show the same improvements in measures of their academic achievements.
Alabama is in the strange position of seeing the performance of public school students on measures of academic achievement well below what anyone can say is good, while the percentage of students who graduate from high school is growing dramatically.
In October, the U.S. Department of Education released data that showed in the 2013-14 school year, Alabama's graduation rate was 86.3 percent, an increase from 80 percent the year before. Only Delaware had a larger increase -- from 80.4 to 87 percent. The remainder of the top five were Oregon (3.3 percentage points); West Virginia (3.1 percentage points); and Illinois (2.8 percentage points).
That increase should be celebrated, of course. But the celebration should be muted by the realization that Alabama students are not showing the same improvements in their academic achievement.
-- Consider this: About one out of every three students who graduate from an Alabama public high school and go on to a state public college have to take either remedial English, remedial math, or both.
-- Or consider this: On the ACT Aspire test designed to measure academic progress, in 2015 only about half of state students were performing proficiently in math, and fewer than half were proficient in reading.
The 2015 numbers showed a slight improvement in math scores compared to the previous year, but the reading scores were flat.
In ACT Aspire science testing, just 37 percent of fifth-graders and 33 percent of seventh-graders were proficient. (Proficiency essentially means the students performed at or above grade level.)
-- Or consider this: On the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), considered the gold standard for academic assessments, only 29 percent of Alabama students performed at the proficient level in reading in 2015. Only 17 percent were proficient in math.
NAEP is given to fourth- and eighth-grade students in randomly selected schools in each state every two years. On the 2015 test, Alabama students actually scored lowest in the nation in math.
On NAEP reading, Alabama fourth graders ranked 40th in the nation and eight graders ranked 43rd.
Each of these three measures of academic achievement involve different age groups and measure progress differently. But taken together, they show that academic achievement is lagging well behind improvements in the state's graduation rates.
So if achievement is essentially stagnant, how is the state managing to improve graduation rates so dramatically?
It would be easy to assume that there is some fudging of numbers on graduation rates going on. The scandals a few years back in Montgomery and Selma public schools involving grade changes certainly raise that specter, and with that history, it would be understandable if the public jumped to the conclusion that shortcuts are still being taken.
However, my gut feeling is that the increase in the graduation rate is not a result of cutting corners -- at least not on any significant scale.
Part of it, I believe, reflects better tracking of students, which is a good thing. Part of it -- probably most of it -- is an increase in the number of opportunities high school students have to make up failed or missed courses, also a good thing. Part of it is that the state has eliminated its standardized graduation exam, which may over time prove not to be a good thing.
But regardless of the reasons, all of this data taken together shows that the real emphasis of local public school systems and the Alabama Department of Education needs to be on improving academic achievement.
Do that, I believe, and graduation rates will take care of themselves.
Do that, and then the state would have a real reason to celebrate.
For those who want to dive deeper into the data, here are the 2015 ACT Aspire results for Alabama:
-- Third grade: 54 percent proficient (52 percent in 2014).
-- Fourth grade: 48 percent proficient (45 percent in 2014).
-- Fifth grade: 43 percent proficient (39 percent in 2014).
-- Sixth grade: 50 percent proficient (43 percent in 2014).
-- Seventh grade: 33 percent proficient (31 percent in 2014).
-- Eighth grade: 27 percent proficient (29 percent in 2014).
-- Third grade: 35 percent proficient (35 percent 2014).
-- Fourth grade: 38 percent proficient (38 percent 2014).
-- Fifth grade: 34 percent proficient (34 percent 2014).
-- Sixth grade: 43 percent proficient (42 percent in 2014).
-- Seventh grade: 34 percent proficient (35 percent in 2014).
-- Eighth grade: 44 percent proficient (48 percent in 2014).
Ken Hare is a longtime newspaper editor and editorial page editor who now writes a regular column for wsfa.com. Feedback appreciated at firstname.lastname@example.org.