getting to graduation

City’s June graduation rate jumps nearly three points, outpacing state

Updated, 5:15 p.m. — New York City’s four-year June graduation rate jumped nearly three points to 64.2 percent this year — the largest uptick in several years — while its share of dropouts fell and the achievement gap between different student groups narrowed.

This year, 9.7 percent of students quit high school, down nearly one point from last year. At the same time, the share of black and Hispanic students who earned diplomas in 2014 grew by about 2.5 points each, shrinking the still-sizable graduation divide between them and white students. Students with disabilities made the most gains, with their graduation rate rising by 3.4 points.

The latest figures continue a decade-long upward march for the city: Since 2005, the graduation rate has increased by nearly 18 points. Despite those long-term gains, both state and city officials emphasized that more work is needed and pointed out that most high school graduates are still ill-prepared for college.

“We must make progress and increase graduation rates further, and make sure students stay in college and are equipped to have meaningful careers,” schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said in a statement.

Only 32 percent of city graduates earned high enough test scores this year to avoid remedial math and English classes at the City University of New York, the city announced last month — a one-point improvement from the year before. Joseph Viteritti, a public policy professor at Hunter College, said officials must be cautious about touting the gains since the college-readiness rates remain so low.

“Graduation rates in this state continue to have a kind of cloud over them,” he said. “We’re really not that confident they represent a level of performance they should for students who are going to enter the job market or go onto higher education.”

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While all student groups saw their graduation rates rise this year, large gaps remain.

For example, while 80.7 percent of the city’s white students earned diplomas this year, just 61.4 percent of Hispanic students and 63.8 percent of black students managed to do so. Meanwhile, the share of students still learning English who graduated by June barely budged, from 32.3 percent in 2013 to 32.5 percent this year. (The rate for students with disabilities is 36.6 percent.)

State policymakers toughened the requirements to earn a diploma two years ago. While the change did not pull down the overall graduation rate, English learners struggled to keep up, with their rate tumbling by nearly 7 points since 2011.

Recently, city and state officials have vowed to do more to help English learners. The city agreed last month to enroll more students in bilingual classes and to make sure their teachers are well trained, while the state Board of Regents proposed doubling the part of the state budget devoted to such students to $86 million next year.

The state is also considering a policy change that would let students substitute a different exam for one of the five they must currently pass to graduate, and another that would let English learners appeal low scores on their English exams. Abja Midha, a project director at Advocates for Children, said the proposals must be coupled with more classroom support.

“We definitely welcome the recent increase in attention to English-language learners,” she said. “But we definitely will be keeping an eye on what instructional supports are provided and how they play out.”

The graduation figures arrived months earlier than in past years (something the state attributed to an improved data system), and during a transitional moment for the state and city school systems.

State Education Commissioner John King announced last week that he was stepping down to join the federal education department, after guiding the state through a rocky transition to tough new learning standards. But even as the new Common Core standards caused state test scores to plunge, the statewide graduation rate has inched up during King’s tenure, with the latest figures offering King some clear progress to cite as he leaves office.

While King called the increase “encouraging” in a statement, he noted that nearly a quarter of students still fail to graduate in four years, which he argued is reason for the state to continue its support for the higher standards. A few of the Regents exams were tied to the new standards for the first time this year, but students will not need to pass a full set of Common Core tests in order to graduate until 2022.

“Students must be given every opportunity to meet those increased expectations,” King said in his statement.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.