access to what

This new report underscores a big challenge facing New York City’s college graduation aspirations

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
A joint Medgar Evers-Boys and Girls choir performed at a graduation.

Thousands of New York City students who enrolled in college as the high school graduation rate skyrocketed may have ended up in debt and out of the workforce — and without degrees.

That’s according to a new analysis by the Research Alliance for New York City Schools, the New York University institute charged with studying city schools data. The findings, based on students who entered high school during the Bloomberg administration, raise questions about Mayor Bill de Blasio’s approach to getting more students to college.

About 55 percent of students who entered high school in 2003 enrolled in college after graduation, the researchers found. For students who started ninth grade in 2008, that figure was 61 percent.

But the gains in college attendance eroded because many of the 2008 ninth-graders who previously might not have gone to college ended up dropping out.

Exactly why is impossible to tell from the data, the researchers say. But it reflects a national trend in which college costs, poor academic preparation, and general life challenges make it harder for low-income students to persist in college.

PHOTO: Research Alliance for New York City Schools

Whatever the explanation, the trend cuts against New York City’s heralded narrowing of racial achievement gaps. In fact, the researchers found, because black and Latino students dropped out without degrees more often than white and Asian students, racial achievement gaps actually widened slightly after students left high school.

From the study:

Broad improvements in college access have not necessarily produced more equitable outcomes for historically underrepresented groups as they have moved into and through the first years of college. Although we have seen gains in high school graduation and enrollment among all students, regardless of background, more advantaged students have been able to maintain these gains as they have transitioned into college in ways that underrepresented students have not. Figuring out how to promote more equitable outcomes is a central challenge facing the City’s policymakers and educators.

So far, the de Blasio administration has thrown its weight behind making it easier for students to get into college, even as the mayor has acknowledged that access and success are not the same thing and moved to add more challenging courses at city high schools.

The city aims to have two thirds of graduates “college ready” by a decade from now. For now, de Blasio’s College Access for All program ensures that middle school students visit colleges and high school students create a “college and career plan,” often with the help of dedicated counselors. The administration also negotiated fee waivers for students applying to CUNY schools, the most common destination for city graduates, and began offering the SAT exam during the school day, eliminating two barriers to entry.

“For a long time, a lot of kids were told they don’t have a chance to go to college, and that was so often wrong,” de Blasio told SAT-taking students this spring. “We’re sending the opposite message now: Anyone who wants to go to college has a chance to make it.”

On Tuesday, the city announced that nearly 30,000 more students had secured fee waivers when applying to CUNY — saving families more than $2.5 million in application fees.

“As the first person in my family to attend college, I understand how important it is to remove barriers,” Chancellor Carmen Fariña, who has frequently referenced her own shaky path to college when discussing the city’s new initiatives, said in a statement. (She has also blamed CUNY schools for letting students founder.)

De Blasio revealed the fee waiver total at the graduation ceremony of the Bronx School for Law, Government and Justice, where almost all of the graduates received waivers. (There, 84 percent of students who entered ninth grade in 2012 graduated four years later, according to city data. But only 64 percent went to college, and just 28 percent met CUNY’s standards.)

Johanie Hernandez, the school’s principal, praised the College Access for All initiative in a statement, saying, “These investments are about making college visible and real for every student at Bronx LGJ, from the time they join us in sixth grade to their high school graduation.”

getting to graduation

A capstone project before graduation? New York debates new ways to earn a diploma

PHOTO: Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal
Booker T. Washington High School seniors toss their graduation caps into the air last spring at the conclusion of their graduation ceremony at the Orpheum Theatre.

As New York continues to rethink what students must do to graduate high school, state policymakers floated their latest idea Monday: Let some students complete a “capstone project” on their path to a diploma.

State education officials have long grappled with graduation requirements. Traditionally, students have had to pass five “Regents” exams in order to graduate. But in recent years, the state has created additional options after policymakers argued that strict test-score requirements can hold some students back.

The debate in New York comes as several states have decided to drop or deemphasize their own exit exams. In New York, policymakers are caught between two cross-currents, said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

“One is assuring students a fair chance at earning a diploma,” he said. “The other current is to try and ensure a diploma means something.”

New York is one of only two states that require five or more exams to graduate. Several states have moved away from exit exams. Just last week, California’s governor officially abolished theirs.

New York currently allows students to replace one of the Regents exams with alternative assessments, including a career-focused exam or an arts test. The state has also made exceptions for students with disabilities, who only need to pass two Regents exams to graduate.

Last year, the state Board of Regents discussed allowing students to substitute a project-based assessment for a failed Regents exam. Allowing students to swap in a capstone project for a Regents exam would fit that trend.

However, when asked about the proposal, State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said students would be able to complete it in addition to the exit exams — not in lieu of them.

“It would not replace Regents exams,” she told Chalkbeat. “Be real clear about that.”

But if Elia is cautious about replacing Regents exams, some board members want to radically rethink the state’s graduation requirements.

Regent Roger Tilles said Monday that the exit exams might be “holding students back as opposed to helping” them. In the past, he has said the state should “start from scratch” and come up with a totally new path to a diploma. (Another board member, Lester Young, proposed on Monday creating a commission to study alternative graduation options.)

Tilles’ remarks earned a round of applause from a group of parents who have been attending meetings to push for more diploma options. One parent advocate, Wendy Harnisher, said Elia should not rule out making the capstone project one option for students who are struggling to graduate.

“For her to say no,” Harnisher said, “I think that’s closing a door on an opportunity that could potentially help a lot of kids.”

The state education department has not made a final decision about the capstone project proposal, and will solicit public feedback before doing so, said spokeswoman Emily DeSantis, adding that the state is committed to giving students multiple ways to graduate.

“This is not about changing our graduation standards,” she said. “It’s about providing different avenues – equally rigorous – for kids to demonstrate they are ready to graduate with a meaningful diploma.”

diploma dilemma

New York’s graduation rate could drop under new federal education law

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

New York state’s high school graduation rate may take a hit due to an under-the-radar provision in the new federal education law.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, requires states to count only “standard” diplomas earned by a “preponderance” of students or honors diplomas in their federal graduation rate. It’s possible that definition would exclude New York’s “local” diploma, a less rigorous option earned by only about 4 percent of graduating students. (Most students earn a “Regents” diploma, which requires higher exit-exam scores than the local version.)

The U.S. Education Department is currently reviewing New York’s ESSA plan. It’s unclear how the federal agency will enforce the graduation rule — and whether New York’s local diploma will pass muster — but experts say it does not appear to meet the requirements of the law. If so, New York may be forced to lower its graduation rate or report separate state and federal rates.

“The law is really clear about what can be counted,” said Anne Hyslop, an education consultant who formerly worked as a senior policy advisor at the U.S. Department of Education. “As long as the Regents is the standard diploma, the only diploma that can be counted is a higher, more rigorous diploma.”

U.S. education department officials declined to say whether New York’s local diploma will count towards the state’s graduation rate under ESSA. New York officials noted that their plan is still under review.

Indiana has already felt the effects of the new rule.

Indiana’s education department announced that in response to the federal law its “general” diploma which is earned by about 12 percent of Indiana graduates who struggle academically or have a disability will no longer be included in its federal graduation rate.

The federal rate is used to hold schools accountable for their performance. States must target any school with a graduation rate below 67 percent for improvement, though states can decide which interventions to use. (New York’s plan allows schools to use their six-year graduation rates to meet that benchmark.)

In response to the new rule, Indiana officials are considering using two different graduation rates: one for the federal accountability system and the other for the state’s. In practice, that would mean different sets of criteria for when state and federal school interventions kick in.

New York could theoretically use two separate counts as well. In that scenario, it would use the lower federal rate for ESSA accountability purposes, such as identifying low-performing schools. But it would still maintain a state rate that factors in local diplomas — a move that would enable students to keep earning the local diploma, which is recognized by colleges and the military.

“The local diploma can still be awarded,” Hyslop said. “That diploma still carries meaning.”

But reporting two separate graduation rates has drawbacks particularly for anyone who wants to understand how schools are performing, said Michael Cohen, president of the nonprofit Achieve, which helps states work on academic standards.

“It would be confusing to anyone who wants to know what the actual graduation rate in the state is,” Cohen said. “If I were a resident in a state that did that I would wonder what’s going on.”

The intent of ESSA’s “preponderance” rule is to push states to issue a single diploma option without lowering the bar for any students, including those with disabilities. Many advocates think if states create easier options it will lower expectations for some students.

“We do believe that students with disabilities largely can achieve the regular standards diploma options,” said Melissa Turner, senior manager for state policy at the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

But sticking to a single graduation cutoff inevitably means leaving some students without a diploma, which can thwart their job or college ambitions.

Rather than withhold a diploma from students who score below the cutoff, New York created the local diploma option. It functions as a safety net for students who are struggling academically, still learning English or have disabilities. There are several ways students with disabilities can earn the credential, but the most recent option allows students to graduate by passing only the math and English Regents exam.

“It’s about providing different avenues – equally rigorous – for kids to demonstrate they are ready to graduate with a meaningful diploma,” said state education department spokeswoman Emily DeSantis, adding that officials would include ESSA in their graduation discussions over the coming months.

Still, experts warned that New York’s alternative diploma options may run afoul of ESSA.

If New York was “really following the letter of the law they would just drop their graduation rates,” by a few percentage points, said Monica Almond, the senior associate for policy development and government relations at the Alliance for Excellent Education.