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.

state test results

With accelerated growth in literacy and math, Denver students close in on state averages

Angel Trigueros-Martinez pokes his head from the back of the line as students wait to enter the building on the first day of school at McGlone Academy on Wednesday. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

Denver elementary and middle school students continued a recent streak of high academic growth this year on state literacy and math tests, results released Thursday show. That growth inched the district’s scores even closer to statewide averages, turning what was once a wide chasm into a narrow gap of 2 percentage points in math and 3 in literacy.

Still, fewer than half of Denver students in grades three through eight met state expectations in literacy, and only about a third met them in math.

Find your school’s test scores
Look up your elementary or middle school’s test scores in Chalkbeat’s database here. Look up your high school’s test results here.

Denver’s high schoolers lagged in academic growth, especially ninth-graders who took the PSAT for the first time. Their test scores were lower than statewide averages.

“We are absolutely concerned about that,” Superintendent Tom Boasberg said Thursday of the ninth-grade scores, “and that is data we need to dig in on and understand.”

Students across Colorado took standardized literacy and math tests this past spring. Third- through eighth-graders took the Colorado Measures of Academic Success, or CMAS, tests, which are also known as the PARCC tests. High school students took college entrance exams: Ninth- and 10th-graders took the PSAT, a preparatory test, and 11th-graders took the SAT.

On CMAS, 42 percent of Denver students in grades three through eight met or exceeded state expectations in literacy. Statewide, 45 percent of students did. In math, 32 percent of Denver students met expectations, compared with 34 percent statewide.

While Denver’s overall performance improved in both subjects, third-grade literacy scores were flat. That’s noteworthy because the district has invested heavily in early literacy training for teachers and has seen progress on tests taken by students in kindergarten through third grade. That wasn’t reflected on the third-grade CMAS test, though Boasberg said he’s hopeful it will be as more students meant to benefit from the training take that test.

On the PSAT tests, Denver ninth-graders earned a mean score of 860, which was below the statewide mean score of 902. The mean PSAT score for Denver 10th-graders was 912, compared with the statewide mean score of 944. And on the SAT, Denver 11th-graders had a mean score of 975. Statewide, the mean score for 11th-graders was 1014.

White students in Denver continued to score higher, and make more academic progress year to year, than black and Hispanic students. The same was true for students from high- and middle-income families compared with students from low-income families.

For example, 69 percent of Denver students from high- and middle-income families met expectations on the CMAS literacy tests, compared with just 27 percent of students from low-income families – which equates to a 42 percentage-point gap. That especially matters in Denver because two-thirds of the district’s 92,600 students are from low-income families.

Boasberg acknowledged those gaps, and said it is the district’s core mission to close them. But he also pointed out that Denver’s students of color and those from low-income families show more academic growth than their peers statewide. That means they’re making faster progress and are more likely to reach or surpass grade-level in reading, writing, and math.

Denver Public Schools pays a lot of attention to annual academic growth, as measured by a state calculation known as a “median growth percentile.”

The calculation assigns students a score from 1 to 99 that reflects how much they improved compared with other students with similar score histories. A score of 99 means a student did better on the test than 99 percent of students who scored similarly to him the year before.

Students who score above 50 are considered to have made more than a year’s worth of academic progress in a year’s time, whereas students who score below 50 are considered to have made less than a year’s worth of progress.

The state also calculates overall growth scores for districts and schools. Denver Public Schools earned a growth score of 55 on the CMAS literacy tests and 54 on the CMAS math tests. Combined, those scores were the highest among Colorado’s 12 largest districts.

Other bright spots in the district’s data: Denver’s students learning English as a second language – who make up more than a third of the population – continued to outpace statewide averages in achievement. For example, 29 percent of Denver’s English language learners met expectations in literacy, while only 22 percent statewide did, according to the district.

Denver eighth-graders also surpassed statewide averages in literacy for the first time this year: 45 percent met or exceeded expectations, as opposed to 44 percent statewide. That increase is reflected in the high growth scores for Denver eighth-graders: 52 in math and 57 in literacy.

Those contrast sharply with the ninth-grade growth scores: 47 in math and an especially low 37 in literacy. That same group of students had higher growth scores last year, Boasberg said; why their progress dropped so precipitously is part of what district officials hope to figure out.

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Most schools in Tennessee’s largest district show growth on state test

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Students at Freedom Preparatory Academy's high school prepare to take their TNReady geometry test.

Most schools in Shelby County Schools showed progress in all subjects except science, but students still outshined their peers across the state in science, earning them the state’s highest rating in growth.

About half of schools in the Memphis district saw a bump in English scores, also earning the district the highest rating of growth under the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, known as TVAAS.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson attributed the gains to a renewed focus in preschool education in recent years, adding a reading curriculum more aligned with state standards, and doubling down on literacy training for teachers and students.

“When you think about the investments that we’ve been able to make in schools over the last two years, I think the data is showing that we’re seeing a good return on our investment,” he told reporters Thursday.

But the scores don’t come without tension. Hopson recently teamed up with Shawn Joseph, the director of Metro Nashville Public Schools, to declare “no confidence” in the state’s test delivery system, which has been plagued with online problems since it began in 2016. Still, Hopson said educators are utilizing the data available to adjust strategies.

“It’s an imperfect measure, but it’s the measure we have right now,” he said. Hopson worries the failures of the state’s online testing system used by high schoolers made “some teachers and students lose focus.”

“There’s impact on those kids that we may never know about,” he said.

Find your school and compare here

The state doesn’t release data for an exam if fewer than 5 percent of students performed on grade level or if 95 percent of students were above grade level. An asterisk signifies that a school’s score falls in one of those two categories.

District-wide results released in July show that more young students are reading on grade-level, and that math scores went up across the board. But the percentage of high school students who scored proficient in reading dropped by 4 percentage points. Shelby County Schools still lags significantly behind the state average.

Shelby County Schools also improved its overall growth score, which measures how students performed compared to peers across the state who scored similarly to them the year before. It increased from 1 to 2 on a scale of 5. More than half of schools scored 3 or above, meaning those students scored on par or more than their peers.

The district’s nearly 200 schools include about 50 charter schools that are managed by nonprofit organizations but receive public funding. The rest are run by the district.

Below are charts showing the five schools that performed best and worst in the district in each subject, as well as those that grew or declined the most in each subject.

The state doesn’t release data for an exam if fewer than 5 percent of students were on grade level or if 95 percent of students were above grade level. The charts below only include schools that fall in between that range.

English Language Arts

Graphic by Samuel Park
Graphic by Samuel Park
Graphic by Samuel Park
Graphic by Samuel Park

Math

Graphic by Samuel Park
Graphic by Samuel Park
Graphic by Samuel Park
Graphic by Samuel Park

Science

Graphic by Samuel Park
Graphic by Samuel Park
Graphic by Samuel Park

Graphic by Samuel Park

Social Studies

Graphic by Samuel Park
Graphic by Samuel Park
Graphic by Samuel Park
Graphic by Samuel Park