By the numbers

New York City’s graduation rate hits 70 percent for first time

The city’s four-year graduation rate hit 70 percent in 2015, a record high for New York City and a two-point increase from the previous year.

Graduation rates among black and Hispanic students still lag far behind white and Asian students, but all groups saw their numbers increase. The rate for students with disabilities and those still learning English also moved up but remain far below the city average.

The city’s August graduation-rate jump was accompanied by a rise in the statewide rate to 80.3 percent, and an all-time high national rate of 82 percent. The numbers represent a victory for Mayor Bill de Blasio, who can claim a steady increase in the graduation rate since he took office in 2014. Since 2005, the graduation rate has improved by 24 points.

“Today’s announcement of more students graduating than ever and fewer dropping out speaks to the critical importance of maintaining the momentum we are seeing in education here in New York City,” de Blasio said in a statement. Last year, he set a goal for the city to achieve an 80 percent graduation rate by 2026.

The city graduation rate’s continuing rise is sure to elicit questions about the meaning of those numbers, especially following a wave of media reports last year detailing incidents where schools changed students’ grades or awarded them unearned credits in order to help them graduate. Outside New York, steadily climbing graduation rates in districts across the country have stirred doubts about the value of a diploma.

Part of the skepticism stems from the disconnect between high school graduation and college-readiness rates. Just over 49 percent of the city’s high school graduates last year were prepared for college-level work, according to one measure based on students’ standardized test scores.

“I want the graduations to go up with substance, with backing, otherwise it’s a ruse,” Regent Kathleen Cashin said.

As usual, the graduation results differed sharply according to students’ race and whether they have special needs.

While 85 percent of Asian students and 82 percent of white students earned their diplomas by August, only 65.4 percent of black students and 64 percent of Hispanic students had hit that mark. Among those groups, Hispanic and Asian students made the biggest gains this year — increases of 2.5 and 2.4 percentage points, respectively — while black and white students made slighter progress.

Meanwhile, the citywide dropout rate fell less than one point, to 9 percent. The dropout rate for Hispanic students, 11.9 percent, is still more than twice the rate for white students.

Students with special needs made progress, but still trail far below their peers. Just over 41 percent of students with disabilities earned diplomas last year, as did 40.5 percent of students who are still learning English.

Based on the state’s June graduation rates, New York City’s graduation rate increased by three percentage points to 67.2 percent.

Graduation rates have continued to increase even though the state’s graduation requirements became more stringent. Starting in 2012, students had to pass five Regents exams with a score of 65 to earn a diploma, instead of the previously required 55.

The exams are expected to get harder as the state continues matching exams to the more difficult Common Core standards. In response, Regents spent Monday morning discussing a number of alternative graduation pathways, including an appeals process for students who score between a 60 and 64, project-based assessments for students who fail Regents tests, and substituting a skills-based certificate for the fifth required Regents exam.

For now, the share of New York’s students earning diplomas is higher than ever.

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said that since the state has nearly reached its 80 percent graduation rate goal, it’s time to set a new statewide benchmark.

“We’ve got to, as a Board, identify what is that next level,” she said.

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.