Setting Higher Standards: High School Graduation Just Isn’t Enough

“If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.”

– Peter Drucker

Not long ago, I was part of a meeting with math teachers and school administrators that involved identifying students that were struggling. The benchmark for “struggling” was failing with a grade below 50%. Although these students definitely deserve increased attention, why was 50% the bar that was set and not the Ontario provincial standard of Level 3, or an equivalent to a “B” or 70%? Is our goal just to pass students, or is it for them to achieve at a level that will set them up for success down the road?

My guess is that the primary measure that is given to school staff that relate to student course achievement is the pass/failure rates. Other measures, including the percentage of students that achieved the provincial standard in courses, are likely not as readily available nor distributed.

In a similar vein, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) recently shared that the graduation rate, now at 86%, is the highest it has been since tracking began in 2000. Again, this is deserving of attention and a noteworthy accomplishment, but should our goal be to simply have students graduate, or to ensure they take the next step to post-secondary education?

In today’s job market, a high school diploma is pretty much the equivalent to a participation ribbon. As the job market demands more skilled workers that attend some form of post-secondary education (college, university, apprenticeships, etc.), and knowing that income is higher for those with post-secondary education vs. a high school diploma alone, we need to work towards ensuring students are set up well to enter and thrive in education after high school, and we need to measure this and make the data well-known.

Enter some really savvy TDSB research folks…and me just regurgitating their great work.

If you know me at all, you’ll know that I talk about streaming structures in education ad nauseum. These structures dictate, to a large extent, access to and success in post-secondary education. In Ontario, high school students take courses in three streams: Academic, Applied and Locally Developed, which are designed for students to access university, college, and the workforce, respectively. In a perfect world, students from all three streams should graduate and be successful at an equal rate. But, this is not a perfect world and it is littered with imperfect systems.

In these three streams, there are clear disparities in graduation rates, as shown in the data pertaining to the student cohort of 2011-2016 in the TDSB:

Graduation by POS

Students who take predominately applied and locally developed courses are not graduating at the same rate as those taking mostly academic courses. However, as mentioned earlier, access to post-secondary education is becoming increasingly more crucial. So what does that data look like across streams?

PSE Confirmations by POS

After five years of high school, more than four out of five students (81.2%) who took predominantly academic courses received a confirmation of post-secondary education. However, less than half of students (47.5%) in the applied program of study attended post-secondary education, and less than 15% of students in the locally developed program access schooling after graduation, with almost none accessing university (0.6%).

Focusing more on the disparity between academic and applied pathways, it is alarming that while both are designed to access post-secondary education, one is clearly much more successful than the other at that goal. What is more troubling is that students in the applied program of study, many of whom are not directly entering college or university, are disproportionately students from racialized backgrounds, those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, and students with special education needs. If this doesn’t eat away at your conscience, go to your doctor and ask them to check for a pulse.

Organizations conduct and report on measures to determine if targets are met. I argue that we need to report on and be accountable to different targets to ensure that our eyes are on the right prize. Specifically, we need to ensure that our students are not just passing at a 50% and then graduating high school, but they are also meeting or exceeding provincial standards and accessing post-secondary education. As the saying goes, “you are what you measure.”

This is mainly why the TDSB has made a commitment to challenging streaming structures to improve success for all students. Along with that structural change, educators in schools need to understand that this shift is a response to the inequities that we see in access to post-secondary education and who is disproportionately affected by streaming structures. We must set high standards for all students, but just as importantly, we must set high expectations and the right targets for ourselves as educators and the systems in which we work.