This past week an attorney friend of mine forwarded me an article, accompanied by much correct and righteous indignation, about how the Nevada Supreme Court was lowering the standards for our state bar exam. Apparently, one of the big motivators for the move was that the old standard was just a little too high for our state’s one and only law school, and their grads needed a little bailout.
The article was a couple months old, and I had read something in passing about it. But what made it relevant to me was the news this week that the Washoe County School District’s high school graduation rate had magically spiked 7 percentage points, up to 84 percent.
I wish my first thought could have been, “Fantastic! I am now confident that I live in a substantially better-educated community!” Sadly, WCSD’s well-documented ineptitudes and dishonest approach to explaining inconvenient facts left me cynically thinking, “Meh. They probably just did what the Bar did – lowered the standards to allow people graduate who probably shouldn’t have.”
A few days later? Sure enough – “Temporarily relaxed graduation requirements likely gave boost to WCSD’s ‘historic’ grad rate,” read the Reno Gazette-Journal headline.
Not to worry, though. Only part of this statistical happiness is the result of tinkering with the numbers. Our superintendent may be obscenely overpaid, but maybe we’re paying for an amazingly insightful data analyst who can identify causal relationships mere mortals would miss. The RGJ story answered that question, too:
In a press conference Wednesday, [Washoe County School District Superintendent Traci] Davis said exempting students from end-of-course exams could be responsible for a gain of 2 or 3 percentage points on the district’s overall rate.
Later in the press conference, Davis also said, “I think that impact is small and I don’t know how to measure it.”
That’s not “thinking,” that’s guessing. If you don’t even know how to measure something, the only way to attach a number to it is to pull said number out of one’s tukas. The fact that the made-up number is self-serving makes it even less plausible.
Surely, though, even if Traci Davis herself can’t figure it out, we have armies of well-paid bureaucrats who do nothing but drill down into the data. They have the answers, right?
Steve Canavero, Nevada’s superintendent of instruction, said the state hasn’t been able to sift through the data closely enough to determine how much of an impact the relaxed graduation requirements may have had. He said the department of education will be taking a closer look at the 2017 graduation rate in the coming weeks.
But Canavero said Davis’s 2 to 3 percent estimation is likely near the mark.
“Her number feels right to me,” Canavero said.
Oh, good Lord. “Feels right”?!? They have the answers, all right, but they have no basis for them. Worse, assuming real improvements are being made, not knowing why or how this is happening with more certainty prevents us from building on those successes.
Like bar passages rates, graduation rates are an easy statistic to “solve.” If I were king of Nevada, I could make both numbers 100 percent tomorrow by decreeing that everyone gets a diploma no matter what their grades were, or that every Boyd School of Law student passes no matter how little he paid attention in Contracts.
When that news article on bar passage came out, Assemblyman Elliot Anderson, who took and passed the bar just last year, wrote an interesting piece about it here in the Independent. While largely correct, Anderson missed the most important advice for those taking a bar exam (and I suspect any other type of entrance or licensing test).
The bar is not a knowledge test; it’s a performance test. You don’t study for it. You rehearse it. What makes a difficult exam a good filter against bad lawyers isn’t the required knowledge base, it’s that successful preparation takes planning ahead, discipline, and repetitive practice over several months. I’d rather be represented by a B student who knows how to keep his nose to the grindstone than the brilliant kid at the top of his class who can’t get out of his own head, and a tough bar exam rewards that sort of productive grit.
And lower standards do marginal law school graduates no favors in the long run. We already have far more lawyers in this country than we have demand for their services – having people begin a profession improperly equipped to succeed in it drives those individuals deeper into debt, diminishes the profession as a whole, and more importantly, does a disservice to the various clients the profession must serve.
The same is true for anyone. Graduation rates are meaningless if the high school diploma doesn’t represent the meeting of some minimum standard. The reason I am most skeptical about this “historic” improvement in Washoe County (and state-wide) is that doesn’t seem to be reflected in other, more objective measures, like ACT scores, which remain flat. An over-credentialed but under-educated workforce is not the way to entice technology companies to come here, nor will it fill our states with home grown innovators or entrepreneurs.
We can and should constantly re-evaluate the performance standards we demand of our students at any level. But merely jiggering statistics to make us look better doesn’t actually improve anything. There is no “get rich quick” scheme for creating a better educated population, or developing a culture which values education.
Orrin Johnson has been writing and commenting on Nevada and national politics since 2007. He started with an independent blog, First Principles, and was a regular columnist for the Reno Gazette-Journal from 2015-2016. By day, he is a deputy district attorney for Carson City. His opinions here are his own. Follow him on Twitter @orrinjohnson, or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.