graduation day

Statewide graduation rates tick up for most students, but not English learners

A slide from the state's report on annual graduation rates, which saw a continued drop for English language learners.

Fewer than one-quarter of the city’s 2013 high school graduates scored high enough on their Regents exams to be considered ready for college or a career, state education officials said today.

Across the state, nearly 75 percent of students who entered high school in 2009 graduated four years later, an improvement of almost one percentage point over last year. That improvement mirrored New York City’s, which saw its graduation rate increase from 60.4 percent to 61.3 percent—numbers that were first released by the Bloomberg administration last year.

Statewide, college and career readiness numbers also crept upward, but remained much lower. Just 37 percent of students across the state hit targets needed to be considered ready for college or a career. And while more students from almost every demographic group are graduating high school on time, a glaring exception is the state’s English language learners, who struggled for a second year to meet the state’s new graduation requirements.

Now required to pass five Regents exams with a score of 65 or higher, these students’ graduation rate dropped more than three percentage points since last year—from 34.3 percent to 31.4 percent—and nearly six percentage points since 2011. In New York City, where about one in seven students are classified as an English language learner, the two-year drop was even steeper, falling from 39.4 percent to 32.3 percent.

Advocates said they were disturbed by the downward trend for English learners, even if it was predictable. In 2011, the state did away with the less rigorous “local diploma,” which allowed students to graduate if they scored at least a 55 on the Regents exams.

“We feared that this was going to happen,” said Claire Sylvan, executive director of Internationals Network for Public Schools, which exclusively serves students who move to the United States with limited or no English language skills. Sylvan, who was in Albany for the Board of Regents meeting where the statistics were presented, said the results were “astounding” to see.

The presence of the local diploma, still available for students with disabilities, had helped prop up the city’s increased graduation rates for years.

“Raising standards and moving away from the local diploma was the right thing to do,” said Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch, noting the many groups of students who “rose to the challenge” of the higher standards.

Still, state education officials acknowledged the growing achievement gap, and said they were considering several changes to graduation requirements, include whether to give a different test to English language learners. The Regents were also planning to discuss ways give students more opportunities to graduate based on more than passing classes and standardized exams, including the creation of “pathways” that would put students on a career track starting in high school.

Officials also pointed out that once students progress past the English language learner classification, they graduate at a rate closer to the rest of the state, which State Education Commissioner John King said was proof that students could thrive if they’re given the right amount of academic support. Last year, “one-time ELL” students graduated at a 71 percent clip.

King used the announcement to rally support around the state’s implementation of the Common Core standards. Though some Regents exams were Common Core-aligned for the first time this year, students won’t need to pass those exams for graduation until the 2022 school year.

“Far too many students, even if they graduate from high school, still haven’t completed the advanced and rigorous course work to be ready for college or the workplace,” King said in a statement.

The state also announced that about 70 percent of about 2,200 students who entered a charter high school in 2009 graduated. That’s above the average graduation rate for New York City, where most of the state’s charter high schools are located.

New York City’s graduation rate isn’t news because former Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the city’s four-year graduation rates for 2013 in an unusually timed press conference last December. The city’s graduation rate represents a nearly 15-point jump since 2005.

City officials didn’t say much after the state’s announcement. Chancellor Carmen Fariña took the chance to tout the city’s pre-kindergarten expansion and push to improve middle schools.

“Graduation rates are moving in the right direction, but we have a long way to go,” Fariña said. “But the most important thing is also to keep in mind that it’s not about just getting into college, it’s staying there all four years.” [documentcloud id=1202882-2013-gradrateslides-6-19-14]

CSI New York

Will you close my school? Transfer school staff, parents and students worry about the new federal education law

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
A class at Brooklyn Frontiers High School

Jamie Hawkins marched to the front of a Brooklyn auditorium Tuesday night holding two pieces of paper.

One had information from her son’s Individualized Education Program, which showed that when he entered high school, he read at a second-grade level and did math at a sixth-grade level. The other, she said proudly, proved he graduated from high school.

The reason her son finished school is he attended Brooklyn Frontiers High School, she said, one of several schools in New York City designed specifically for students who have fallen behind.

“He got the skills that he needed,” she explained after her testimony. When asked if he would have graduated without Brooklyn Frontiers she said, “No. Absolutely not.”

Students, teachers and parents from the city’s transfer high schools — which serve students who are over-age and under-credited — crowded into the Prospect Heights Educational Campus on Tuesday for a hearing on the Every Student Succeeds Act, which they fear will treat their schools unfairly.

These schools present a conundrum for state officials. The new law requires that schools with graduation rates under 67 percent are targeted for improvement. But for transfer schools, many people testified at the hearing, that is often an unrealistic standard.

“The language of this legislation, the ESSA legislation, puts our schools in grave danger,” said Rachel Forsyth, director of partnership schools at Good Shepherd Services, a nonprofit that works in multiple transfer schools.

So what will happen to transfer schools under New York’s draft ESSA plan? Are they really in danger? Here’s what we found out:

What does the plan currently say?

The state’s draft plan does not separate the way it evaluates transfer schools from how it judges traditional high schools — but it does gives all high schools some wiggle room.

Instead of using on-time (four-year) graduation rates, the state allows six-year graduation rates in its draft plan. That might not be enough for transfer schools, though. The average six-year graduation rate for transfer schools is 46.7 percent.

If a school does not meet a six-year graduation rate of 67 percent, it will be identified as a school that needs improvement.

Can the state make an exception for transfer schools under the law?

The state says all high schools have to reach a 67 percent graduation rate. Based on information the state’s education department has received from the U.S. Department of Education, there is no exemption for transfer high schools, state officials said.

But advocates say the law offers more leeway. Under the regulations approved by former U.S. Education Secretary John King, schools that serve special populations — such as alternative schools — were permitted to use different metrics than traditional high schools.

Those regulations have been undone by Congress, but the fact that they existed before shows the law allows that flexibility, said Ian Rosenblum, executive director of EdTrust-NY.

“We believe that the state can and should propose a different methodology for identifying specialized schools, such as transfer schools,” Rosenblum said.

What will happen if transfer schools are identified for improvement?

At one point during the hearing, a transfer school advocate gestured to the crowd and declared that if this plan moves forward, all the transfer schools represented in the room would soon cease to exist.

That is very unlikely to come to pass. Even if a school is identified as needing improvement, it would probably be several years before it could face any serious consequences under the new law, according to the state’s draft.

If a school is identified for Comprehensive School Improvement (CSI), it has three years to receive extra support and to implement an improvement plan. Then, it could be put into the state’s receivership program, which means it would likely have another two years to demonstrate improvement. If it does not demonstrate enough improvement, it risks being taken over by an outside receiver.

The state has already proven itself lenient in forcing an independent receiver on schools. So far, only one school in New York state has been threatened with takeover. According to state officials, once schools are in receivership, the state education commissioner has some flexibility in tracking their progress and determining whether schools should still be deemed struggling.

Still, any threat looms large for transfer schools, whose advocates say even if the worst-case scenario never plays out, they are still being rated by unfair metrics.

“We’re already working with kids who have been told repeatedly they are failures. Now we’re looking at a system where 90 percent of the [transfer] schools in the city will be looked at as failing schools,” Forsyth said. “I don’t think it’s really understanding the population we’re working with.”

State officials said they are aware of these concerns and will work to come up with a solution.

one barrier down

City to eliminate high school admissions method that favored families with time and resources

PHOTO: Monica Disare
At 9:30 in the morning, the line to get into the citywide high school fair last September already snaked around the corner.

New York City will eliminate a high school admissions method that puts low-income families at a disadvantage and has proven vulnerable to abuse, the city announced Tuesday as part of its plan to promote diversity in city schools.

“Limited unscreened” high schools don’t have academic requirements, but give preference to students who attend an open house or a high school fair. For students entering high school in 2019, that preference will be abolished. The change will mark a big shift: about a third of the city’s roughly 700 high school programs were “limited unscreened” this school year.

The goal of the “limited unscreened” designation was to give students a leg up in admissions at schools to which they conveyed their interest. But a Chalkbeat investigation this fall revealed it has not worked as planned because some students were more likely to get priority than others.

City figures show that 45 percent of black and Hispanic students who listed limited unscreened schools as their first choice received priority, while 57 percent of the non-black, non-Hispanic students did.

“The kids in a priority group are more advantaged on every single dimension you can think of,” said Jennifer Jennings, an associate professor at NYU who studies the high school admissions process. “Every single marker of advantage gets reproduced through priority admissions.”

There are several reasons students might struggle to get priority status. For one thing, attending open houses can be a burden for families. They often require a hefty time investment and may be far from students’ homes. Some are during the school day, causing parents to miss work. Other families struggle to pay the subway fare.

Figuring out when to attend an open house can also be tricky. A Chalkbeat analysis found that the education department’s calendar is missing several dates. (In Tuesday’s report, the education department said it had plans to improve this.)

As an alternative, the education department allows students to earn the same preference by signing in with a number of schools during a high school fair. But at this year’s fair, many schools seemed unaware of the rules or were simply not following them. And some schools were collecting surveys and other information about students — raising questions about whether they were trying to screen their applicants.

The “limited unscreened” admissions method was created during the Bloomberg era and has expanded exponentially since it started. Between 2005 and 2012, the number of limited unscreened programs nearly doubled. Part of the idea was that small schools with a specific theme, like marine science or culinary arts, should be allowed to give preference to students who are truly interested in that particular topic.

But even Eric Nadelstern, a former deputy chancellor under Joel Klein who worked at the education department when the policy was created, said the policy had run its course.

“It only made sense to nurture those schools at the beginning,” Nadelstern said in an earlier interview with Chalkbeat. “We’ve now grown into a different period.”

Schools have already started to migrate away from the limited unscreened admissions method, according to city officials. One quarter of this year’s limited unscreened programs have a new way to admit students for next year, they said.

Many of those schools became educational option or “ed opt” schools, according to Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack. Those schools are designed to enroll students with a mix of ability levels, but they often fall short of that goal. The admissions method that will eventually replace limited unscreened will “vary school-by-school,” Wallack said, but a number will become unscreened or ed-opt.

While eliminating limited unscreened admissions removes a barrier for many students, some question whether it will have a diversifying effect. About one third of high school programs are screened, which means they can admit students based on grades, test scores, interviews or other criteria.

Those schools drain off the top-performing students and also enroll a disproportionately low percentage of black and Hispanic students, who are often clustered at limited unscreened and ed opt schools.

“Embedded in this larger diversity plan is an effort to maintain screened schools, said Matt Gonzales, school diversity project director for New York Appleseed. “To eliminate limited unscreened schools, while maintaining all screened schools, is really disappointing.”

Maurice Frumkin, a former city education department official who now runs an admissions consultancy, also thinks the city could go further. It could eliminate District 2 priority, for instance, which gives admissions preference to families who live in a certain geographic area.

In response to those critiques, Wallack said the plan is meant to be “first steps.”

“We are open to taking on additional challenges and issues and we may very well discuss other screened programs,” Wallack said.

In addition to eliminating the limited unscreened admissions method, the city is trying to increase access to screened and specialized high schools and make open houses easier to attend. They are also giving more admissions control to students and families by creating online applications.

Middle schools, meanwhile, will no longer allow schools to see how families rank them, a longtime criticism of the system. That will, in theory, encourage families to rank their actual preferences rather than try to game the system.

But more importantly for Eric Goldberg, a member of the Community Education Council in District 2, it requires schools to reevaluate their admissions rubrics.

“Without this plan,” he said, “the status quo persists.”