For students from traditionally marginalized communities, graduation rates have soared by double-digits. But why haven't they made comparable growth on standardized tests?

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Over the past five years, Washington state has made significant progress in helping more students from traditionally marginalized communities graduate from high school on time.

Only about 62 percent of Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students, for example, finished high school within four years in 2013. Fast forward to the class of 2018, and 74 percent of Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander students graduated on time.

That 12-point increase represented the largest posted by any race and ethnic group of students over the past five years, according to a presentation the Washington State Board of Education will hear at its meeting this week. But why haven’t Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander students made similar gains on standardized tests?

Education Lab is a Seattle Times project that spotlights promising approaches to persistent challenges in public education. It is produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network and is funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and City University of Seattle. Learn more about Ed Lab 

Between the 2014-15 and 2017-18 school years, their passage rates on the English language arts (ELA) and math exams barely budged and hovered just below 40 and 30 percent, respectively.

The same largely held true for English learners: Although their graduation rates soared nearly 14 points since 2013, the share of English learners who passed the ELA test remained at a low 14 percent between 2014 and 2018. Their math passage rates actually slipped by one percentage point.

White students, meanwhile, both improved their graduation rate by about 4 percentage points and posted double-digit gains in ELA. Their passage rates on the math exam rose by six percentage points.

“The question is more complex than a ‘pass/fail’ rate,” Alissa Muller, spokeswoman for the State Board of Education, wrote in an email. “Student scores may be increasing but not to a degree that it would show up in the overall proficiency rate yet. So, more learning is likely happening that may not be reflecting in the percentage of students meeting standard.”

In some cities that have seen rapidly rising graduation rates, stagnation on other academic metrics has been a check on claims of progress, exposing concerns about grade inflation and so-called diploma mills. Just last year, the public school district in Washington, D.C., revised its graduation rates down significantly after an NPR and WAMU investigation found many seniors graduated in 2017 despite missing many days of school or credits.

Muller suggested there may be multiple reasons why graduation rates have risen faster than student proficiency.

One possibility: High schools have started paying more attention to ninth-grade performance in their core classes — a strong predictor of whether freshmen will graduate on time, if at all.

In 2017, Education Lab reported on how educators have tried to break up the “ninth-grade bottleneck” to help more students earn their diploma. And this year, state Sen. Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah, introduced legislation that would have required school districts to focus more on freshmen’s success. (The bill missed a key legislative deadline earlier this month.)

Aside from graduation rates and student performance on the math and reading exams, the State Board of Education tracks three other indicators of what it calls the “educational system health.” The state failed to meet its annual targets in all six of those measures, according to a 2018 report.

“Our system health report acknowledges these achievement and opportunity gaps, and presents a series of recommended reforms to address them,” Muller said.