metrics matter

New York’s graduation rates are up. Does that mean students are learning more?

PHOTO: Seth McConnell, The Denver Post

New York City released good news on Wednesday: For the fifth year in a row, more students in the city are earning a high school diploma, reaching a record 74.3 percent.

“We see constant progress across the board,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio at a press conference celebrating the graduation rates. “Every borough, people of every background, the trend is so clear.”

But do increasing graduation rates reflect more students performing higher-level work? The question is complicated for several reasons. As graduation rates have climbed over the last few years, the state has simultaneously made it easier to earn a diploma. Additionally, earning a diploma does not mean students are ready for college. And the rates themselves may be deceptive; there are a variety of ways schools can artificially inflate them.

Amid a national conversation about whether graduation rates are a valid measure of student progress or whether they are inherently fungible, New York provides another example of how graduation rates can be a slippery tool for evaluating learning. Here’s our breakdown of the reasons to be skeptical of graduation rate data.

Reason 1: The state has eased graduation requirements.

New York has made it easier for students to earn diplomas in recent years though it is tricky to discern whether these changes are driving increases in graduation rates.

In the first — and likely most significant — change, students can opt out of a social studies exit exam and instead take a different test in subjects like science, math, arts or career and technical education. (Students are still required to take four other Regents exams in specific subjects.) The change was first implemented in 2014, but state officials have been adding alternative paths over the years, including allowing students to substitute a work-readiness credential for the final exam.

On Wednesday, state officials announced that 9,900 students took advantage of one of these testing or credential options in 2017. City officials said they estimate about 2,000 students used one of these options. (There are a little more than 200,000 students who began in this year’s graduation cohort statewide and about 73,000 of those students are from New York City.)

That is enough to account for a significant graduation rate boost, but State Commissioner MaryEllen Elia cautioned not to jump to that conclusion. Students who earned a diploma this way may have passed the social studies exam, in addition to completing a different path, but the school picked the second exam to record for official purposes. They also may have been able to pass the exam but chose another path instead, she said.

“We can’t draw any conclusions off of that by saying that one helped or didn’t help the other,” Elia said.

On top of that, more students can now appeal a failed exam. Previously, students had to score a 62 to appeal their score, but as of 2016, students can appeal a score of 60 or higher and they no longer have to adhere to an attendance requirement. Based on the city’s initial analysis, about 1,932 students took advantage of the appeals process, which is more than four times the number of students who graduated using this option before the state made this change in 2016.

Is there more? Yes. The state also eased graduation requirements for students with disabilities, who only had to pass two exit exams to graduate starting in 2016. This December, the state’s top policymakers eased the requirements further, allowing students with disabilities to graduate without passing any exit exams — a change that could affect future graduation rates. This year, the city estimates only about 230 students used this option.

Also important to note: These changes to graduation requirements were all made in the last several years. This year, graduation requirements were essentially the same and graduation rates still increased. However, teachers, students and schools had more time to prepare for and use the additional options.

Reason 2: Earning a high school diploma doesn’t mean you’re ready for college.

What does it mean to be a high school graduate in New York State?

Policymakers and advocates have long struggled to decide what a diploma should signify about a student’s accomplishments and knowledge. The lack of any formal definition is an important reason to be skeptical of using graduation rates as a marker of academic success.

Critics often point out that many graduates are not prepared for college-level work. Though 74 percent of students graduated in New York City last year, only about 64 percent of graduates earn high enough test scores to avoid remedial classes at CUNY colleges. (And that number is itself a moving target — it shot up this year in part because CUNY changed how it defines college-readiness.)

“Mayor de Blasio should hold the self-congratulation because the achievement gap remains too large, college readiness rates are too low, and watered-down criteria may explain gains,” said Jenny Sedlis, executive director of StudentsFirstNY.

Education department officials pointed out that the city’s college-readiness rate would have increased by 6 percentage points in 2017 even without CUNY’s changes — a sign that more students are leaving high school prepared for college, not just earning diplomas. In addition, more city students are enrolling in college after they graduate, the officials noted.

Reason 3: Schools can game their graduation rates.

A few years ago, New York City was rocked by a series of reports that schools were boosting graduation rates by changing grades or enrolling students in courses that fell far below the state’s standards. The practice, called “credit-recovery,” is meant to allow students flexibility if they fail a course, but was being misused in some cases to give students credit with limited instruction.

The problem of reporting faulty graduation rates is not confined to New York City. In Washington, D.C., it recently came to light that students received diplomas after missing too many classes. Chicago had to lower its graduation rate after inflating it for years. Tennessee couldn’t keep track of its own graduation rate last year.

There is no reason to suspect foul play this year, said Phil Weinberg, deputy chancellor, Division of Teaching and Learning.

“We feel very comfortable that we’re showing authentic gains here in the graduation statistic,” Weinberg said. “We have nothing that leads us to believe that anyone is trying to mess with stats.”

Christina Veiga contributed reporting.

Update: This story has been updated to note that city officials say the city’s college-readiness rate would have increased several percentage points last year even if CUNY had not eased its college-readiness requirements.

To Do

Tennessee’s new ed chief says troubleshooting testing is first priority

PHOTO: (Caiaimage/Robert Daly)

Penny Schwinn knows that ensuring a smooth testing experience for Tennessee students this spring will be her first order of business as the state’s new education chief.

Even before Gov.-elect Bill Lee announced her hiring on Thursday, she was poring over a recent report by the state’s chief investigator about what went wrong with TNReady testing last spring and figuring out her strategy for a different outcome.

“My first days will be spent talking with educators and superintendents in the field to really understand the scenario here in Tennessee,” said Schwinn, who’s been chief deputy commissioner of academics in Texas since 2016.

“I’ll approach this problem with a healthy mixture of listening and learning,” she added.

Schwinn’s experience with state assessment programs in Texas and in Delaware — where she was assistant secretary of education — is one of the strengths cited by Lee in selecting her for one of his most critical cabinet posts.

The Republican governor-elect has said that getting TNReady right is a must after three straight years of missteps in administration and scoring in Tennessee’s transition to online testing. Last year, technical disruptions interrupted so many testing days that state lawmakers passed emergency legislation ordering that poor scores couldn’t be used to penalize students, teachers, schools, or districts.

Schwinn, 36, recalls dealing with testing headaches during her first days on the job in Texas.

“We had testing disruptions. We had test booklets mailed to the wrong schools. We had answer documents in testing booklets. We had online administration failures,” she told Chalkbeat. “From that, we brought together teachers, superintendents, and experts to figure out solutions, and we had a near-perfect administration of our assessment the next year.”

What she learned in the process: the importance of tight vendor management, including setting clear expectations of what’s expected.

She plans to use the same approach in Tennessee, working closely with people in her new department and Questar Assessment, the state’s current vendor.

“Our job is to think about how to get online testing as close to perfect as possible for our students and educators, and that is going to be a major focus,” she said.

The test itself has gotten good reviews in Tennessee; it’s the online miscues that have many teachers and parents questioning the switch from paper-and-pencil exams. Schwinn sees no choice but to forge ahead online and is quick to list the benefits.

“If you think about how children learn and access information today, many are getting that information from hand-held devices and computers,” she said, “so reflecting that natural experience in our classrooms is incredibly important.”

Schwinn said computerized testing also holds promise for accommodating students with disabilities and provides for a more engaging experience for all students.

“When you look at the multiple-choice tests that we took in school and compare that to an online platform where students can watch videos, perform science experiments, do drag-and-drop and other features, students are just more engaged in the content,” she said.

“It’s a more authentic experience,” she added, “and therefore a better measure of learning.”

Schwinn plans to examine Tennessee’s overall state testing program to look for ways to reduce the number of minutes dedicated to assessment and also to elevate transparency.

She also will oversee the transition when one or more companies take over the state’s testing program beginning next school year. Former Commissioner Candice McQueen ordered a new request for proposals from vendors to provide paper testing for younger students and online testing for older ones. State officials have said they hope to award the contract by spring.

In Texas, a 2018 state audit criticized Schwinn’s handling of two major education contracts, including a no-bid special education contract that lost the state more than $2 million.

In Tennessee, an evaluation committee that includes programmatic, assessment, and technology experts will help to decide the new testing contract, and state lawmakers on the legislature’s Government Operations Committee plan to provide another layer of oversight.

Spring testing in Tennessee is scheduled to begin on April 15. You can learn more about TNReady on the state education department’s website.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information about problems with the handling of two education contracts in Texas. 

Class of 2018

Some Colorado schools see big gains in grad rates. Find yours in our searchable database.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Aurora Public Schools
Aurora West College Preparatory Academy graduates of 2018. The school had a 100 percent graduation rate.

Two metro-area school districts, Westminster and Aurora, recently in the state’s crosshairs for their low-performance, posted significant increases in their graduation rates, according to 2018 numbers released Wednesday.

Westminster, a district that got off the state’s watchlist just last year, had 67.9 percent of its students graduate on time, within four years of starting high school. That was a jump of 10 percentage points from its 57.8 percent graduation rate in 2017.

District officials credit their unique model of competency-based education, which does away with grade levels and requires students prove they mastered content before moving up a level. In previous years, district officials pointed to rising graduation rates that Colorado also tracks for students who take five, six or seven years, but officials say it was bound to impact their 4-year rates as well.

“We saw an upward tick across the board this past year,” said Westminster Superintendent Pam Swanson, referring to state test results and other data also showing achievement increasing. “I think this is one more indicator.”

Swanson said the high school has also focused recently on increasing attendance, now at almost 90 percent, and increasing students’ responsibility for their own learning.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

In Aurora schools, 76.5 percent of students graduated on time in 2018 — a jump of almost 9 percentage points from the 67.6 percent rate of the class of 2017.

“We’re excited these rates demonstrate momentum in our work,” Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn said.

He attributed the increased graduation rates to “better practice, better pedagogy, and better policy.”

One policy that made a difference for the district is a change in law that now allows districts to count students as graduates the year they complete their high school requirements, even if they are enrolled in one of Colorado’s programs to take college courses while doing a fifth year of high school.

According to a state report two years ago, Aurora had 65 students enrolled in this specific concurrent enrollment program who previously wouldn’t have been counted in four-year graduation rates. Only the Denver district has a larger number of such students. Aurora officials said 147 students are enrolled this year in the program.

Those students are successful, Munn said, and shouldn’t be counted against the district’s on-time graduation rates.

Aurora’s previously rising graduation rates helped it dodge corrective state action. But its improvement this year included a first: One high school, Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, had 100 percent of its seniors graduate in 2018.

The school enrolls students in grades six through 12 in northwest Aurora, the most diverse part of the district. Of the more than 1,000 students, 89 percent qualify for subsidized lunch, a measure of poverty.

“This incredible accomplishment demonstrates the strong student-focused culture we have created at Aurora West,” said Principal Taya Tselolikhina in a written statement. “When you establish high expectations and follow up with high levels of support, every student is able to shape a successful future.”

Statewide, the four-year graduation rate once again inched higher, and gaps between the graduation rate of white students and students of color again decreased. But this time, the gaps narrowed even as all student groups increased their graduation rates.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

The rising trend wasn’t universal. In some metro area school districts, graduation rates fell in 2018. That includes Adams 14, the district that is now facing outside management after years of low performance.

The tiny school district of Sheridan, just southwest of Denver, saw a significant drop in graduation rates. In 2018, 64.7 percent of students graduated within four years, down from 72.7 percent of the class of 2017.

Look up four-year graduation rates for your individual school or district in our databases below.

Districts here: