College & Workforce Readiness

Graduation Rate is ‘Bogus,’ Valley High Principal Says

By Catherine Gewertz — August 05, 2009 2 min read

Those of you who have been following my posts on Valley High in Las Vegas might find the next chapter interesting: a chat with the school’s principal.

Last week, I had blogged about the fact that the school was being honored by the state of Nevada as a “high-achieving exemplary turnaround” school because of the impressive gains in its test scores, despite the fact that it has a graduation rate of 55 percent.

I got a talking-to from longtime schools activist Mike Klonsky in Chicago, who said I ought to be ashamed of myself for not giving Valley High teachers more credit for the test score gains. I shared our friendly debate about it earlier this week.

Then I had the pleasure of chatting with Valley High’s principal, Ron Montoya, on the phone. He’d been out of pocket and unable to return my call until a few days after my first blog post. I asked him to share his thoughts on his school’s being honored as high-achieving and exemplary while still losing nearly half its students before graduation.

He noted that his school has made huge strides in its grad rate; it was at 42 percent last year, now it’s at 55 percent. Some of that improvement, he said, is due to better dropout tracking. Some of the kids school officials thought had dropped out couldn’t be found, but some were, in fact, in school programs elsewhere, so they no longer counted as dropouts, he said. Some of the improvement is due to strategies like differentiated instruction and better-targeted remediation, and to offering students more chances to catch up with their work online, Mr. Montoya said.

Certainly that is a big gain in the grad rate, and it’s nice to know more kids are getting diplomas. But I still wanted to know what he thought about the state accountability system’s way of handing out these honors. (To earn the honor Valley High got, it had to raise test scores in big ways, but it didn’t have to exceed the 50 percent grad rate threshold required to make adequate yearly progress in Nevada under the No Child Left Behind Act.)

So, at the risk of ticking him off, I asked Mr. Montoya his thoughts on this. He’s a pleasant fellow, and didn’t seem put off by the question. And he had a straightforward answer.

“The grad rate number is bogus,” he said. Since the number is “inaccurate and unfair,” Mr. Montoya said, it would be equally unfair for the state to demand that a school’s grad rate improve along with its test scores in order to earn the kind of distinction Valley has earned.

“In our case, 75 percent of our kids are Hispanic, and many are Mexicans who go back and forth between here and there. It’s impossible to find most of them,” said Mr. Montoya, who was himself born in Mexico and was mentored by grandparents who were migrant farmworkers. “So schools like mine [would] get dinged on graduation rates instead of success rates.”

Parents are another factor that is out of the school’s control, Mr. Montoya said, yet contributes to graduation-rate challenges.

"[The dropout problem is] not the school’s fault, it’s the parents’ fault,” he said. “Why should a school get tagged a failure because a parent won’t send a child to school?”

Interesting thoughts on a challenging situation. Please share your thoughts as well.

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School Connections blog.