The Truth Needle | False: Seattle Public Schools underestimated students' college-readiness
The claim that only 17 percent of Seattle Public Schools graduates meet the entrance requirements for four-year colleges is not correct.
Seattle Times education reporter
The Truth Needle is backAt the request of readers, we're continuing The Truth Needle, a fact-checking feature that started as a way to check claims during the election season. We'll be investigating the claims of politicians, public officials and other newsmakers.
The claim: Starting in 2008, Seattle Public Schools reported that a meager 17 percent of its high-school graduates met the entrance requirements for four-year colleges. The district quietly quit using that number then recently revised it, without comment, to 46 percent.
What we found: A little shock wave went through Seattle's education community when the district first began suggesting that so few of its students took the courses they needed to apply to a four-year college in this state.
The 17 percent was one of the numbers district leaders used to justify the district's five-year plan that included a new system of assigning students to schools, more testing for students, and new teacher and principal evaluations.
That statistic was false, but the district used the number in presentations to the School Board and to the public.
Other groups picked it up as well, using it to lobby for their own priorities.
The Seattle Council PTSA, for example, cited the statistic in stating why the district needed to make the high-school curriculum more consistent from school to school. In a newsletter sent to school PTAs all over the city, the council said Seattle Public Schools' data "shows that only 17 percent of its students finish high school able to meet the actual admission requirements to public four-year colleges and universities in Washington."
And as recently as August, former Seattle Mayor Norm Rice cited the statistic in a similar way in arguing for what he wanted to see in Seattle's new teachers contract.
About two weeks ago, without fanfare, the district reported a new, much higher number. In a ream of data released that day on how its schools and the district as a whole are doing, it said 46 percent of the students who graduated this past June met the entrance requirements for Washington's public four-year universities.
The district did not call attention to the change, or explain why the number had changed so dramatically.
The reason: The 17 percent was never really what it seemed.
Brad Bernatek, the district's director of research, assessment and evaluation, said he came up with the 17 percent figure in 2008, but it was supposed to be a measure of how many high-school graduates were prepared to succeed in four-year colleges, not just get admitted.
To arrive at that figure, he counted only students who took four years of math and three years of science — more than what's required by public four-year colleges in this state. He also ruled out any student who didn't have a B average, even though a C average is enough to apply.
Deep in an appendix to the district's strategic plan, that's how the 17 percent figure is described.
But to the public and the School Board, the district described the figure inaccurately.
In a presentation used at community meetings in 2008, for example, the district said only 17 percent of its graduates "met the entrance requirements for a four-year college."
It's unclear whether district staff oversimplified the explanation, misunderstood what Bernatek was trying to do or misused it in their zeal to convince the public and potential funders of the need for the changes outlined in the five-year plan.
What is clear: At least one School Board member raised questions about the figure from the beginning. And the district didn't publicly correct it, even after it pulled the figure from some of its own reports.
Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson says that was a mistake.
"We should have changed the public conversation," Goodloe-Johnson said Friday.
While staff understood what the number was supposed to be, she said, she acknowledges the district didn't make its meaning clear to the public, especially after it decided to quit using it.
"We should have come forward sooner," she said.
School Board President Michael DeBell said 17 percent always seemed too low to him. He raised questions about the number from the beginning, was told that staff would look into it, but said he never received a satisfactory answer.
"Every time I heard it, I cringed," he said. "I knew it was way too low. We were doing much better than that. I couldn't understand why we were putting that kind of data out."
Ramona Hattendorf, who until recently was president of the Seattle Council PTSA, said she asked Goodloe-Johnson about the number at a public meeting this fall. Goodloe-Johnson asked someone on her staff to look into it, but Hattendorf said she never received a response.
Hattendorf said she feels bad she spread incorrect information. The new figure, she said, was the first thing she noticed in the Nov. 9 report.
Bernatek said he stopped using the number about a year ago for two reasons. He worried about measuring students against a bar they didn't know existed, he said, and he also learned he'd left out some career- and technical-education classes that should have been counted as math classes.
In retrospect, Bernatek said, he wished he'd done more to make sure the public knew the issues with the number and why the district stopped using it.
"I didn't communicate that well enough," he said. "In fairness to the people who used it, it was still on our website."
Seattle Public Schools has some discouraging statistics, as do many school districts in this area and across the nation. About a third of Seattle's high-school students drop out, for example.
But in the past three years, 44 to 49 percent of its graduates met the minimum entrance requirements for four-year colleges and roughly 40 percent enrolled.
That might not be high, but it's still a lot more than 17 percent.
Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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