getting to graduation

NYC’s graduation rate went up in 2018. But the gain may have little to do with student learning.

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman/Chalkbeat
Students from The Urban Assembly Gateway School for Technology walked to a graduation ceremony.

When the state revealed last week that New York City’s graduation rate ticked up to nearly 76 percent, city officials argued it was yet another piece of evidence that their education agenda is bearing fruit.

But that increase coincides with a similar uptick in the number of students taking advantage of new graduation pathways, according to a Chalkbeat analysis of city data, complicating the narrative that rising graduation rates are necessarily pure evidence of gains in student learning.

Two state policy changes made in recent years are having an outsized effect: It is now possible to graduate with a lower score on Regents exams, five tests that students must typically pass to earn a diploma. And state officials have also allowed students to substitute one of the five Regents exams with a growing number of alternative tests, an option known as 4+1. (Overall, 9.2 percent of city students used one of those two methods to graduate in 2018, with slightly more than half opting for appealing low scores.)

Neither of those changes took effect for the first time last year, but students increasingly used them to graduate in 2018. The city’s gradation rate last year rose 1.7 percentage points — and 1.2 of that can be solely accounted for by a rise in students taking advantage of these two changes in graduation requirements.

“Roughly two-thirds of the increase in graduation rate can be attributed to the increased use of the 4+1 or the appeal option,” said Aaron Pallas, a professor at Columbia’s Teachers College who reviewed Chalkbeat’s analysis. “It’s not clearly due to an increase in student performance.”

Still, that conclusion comes with important caveats. Some students who used the 4+1 pathway may have been able to graduate if they had taken a fifth Regents exam. Plus, officials and advocates say many of the alternative assessments that can be switched for a fifth Regents exam are just as rigorous; in New York City, about three-quarters of students who replaced a fifth exam used a math or science assessment. (But another 14 percent of students who took advantage of 4+1 used an exam that evaluates basic work-entry skills.)

During a press conference, Mayor Bill de Blasio acknowledged those new graduation pathways, but said the broader pattern of rising graduation rates over the past 15 years suggests students are learning more.

“I think it transcends the various adjustments that have been made at the state level,” de Blasio said. “It indicates something much bigger that’s happening.”

Offering students new graduation options is part of a larger effort among state officials to balance New York’s graduation requirements — among the toughest in the country — with the reality that some students won’t be able to meet them. Research has generally found that high school exit exams do not increase student achievement but that they do increase dropout rates among vulnerable student groups.

Over the past seven years, state officials have made at least 15 changes to graduation standards, including tweaks designed to benefit students with disabilities and those who are learning English.

One recent change allowed students with disabilities to graduate while passing only two Regents exams, or none at all, as long as a superintendent signs off — a move that many special education advocates saw as a win that would allow students to demonstrate their learning and earn the benefits of a diploma even if they couldn’t pass the exams. (State officials said 66 city students with disabilities graduated that way in 2018, a tiny share of graduates.)

The two most consequential shifts, however, have been the expanded use of the alternative tests to replace a fifth Regents (4.3 percent of graduates last year) and expanding the range of low Regents scores that students can appeal (now used by 4.8 percent of city grads). In 2016, officials lowered the score students could appeal and also dropped an attendance requirement.

While the new pathways are allowing more students to graduate, they also have potential downsides. If educators know that standards are lower for certain student groups, it could create incentives to push those students into less demanding classes.

“Greater use of multiple pathways and increased college and career readiness can absolutely go hand-in-hand, and we see indications of that in the data” said Ian Rosenblum, the executive director of Education Trust-New York, a group that has closely tracked changing graduation standards. “At the same time, with the new pathways comes the responsibility to ensure that historically underserved students are not being tracked into less rigorous coursework and lower graduation standards.”

Danielle Filson, a city education department spokeswoman, emphasized that rising graduation rates will help students earn “a ticket to a better life.” Though officials acknowledged that the increase comes after changing graduation standards, they argued that gains on other measures also paint a positive portrait of the school system’s performance.

“This progress is not happening in a vacuum,” Filson added, pointing to decreasing dropout rates and increasing enrollment in college. She also noted the state’s overall graduation rate would not have increased last year if the city’s students were excluded.

But graduation rates are not necessarily good proxies for other measures of student learning, including test scores. Although more city students are earning diplomas, the city’s results on a major national assessment have been flat in recent years.

Sean Corcoran, a professor at Vanderbilt University who has conducted research on New York City schools and reviewed the graduation data at Chalkbeat’s request, noted there are lots of outside factors that can exert influence on graduation rates, including the student demographics of a given graduating class. He said it is important to  track longer-term outcomes to assess the full impact of the policy changes.

“There is a lot of research out there that exit exams can be an obstacle for students,” Corcoran said. But “it’s a fine line between watering down standards and providing meaningful pathways for students.”

College Access

How an effort to prepare Michigan high schoolers for college slipped through the cracks

The proposal to make it easier for students to earn college credit while still in high school seemed like the rare education policy idea with no natural enemies in the Michigan legislature.

When a bill was proposed in the Republican-controlled Senate, it passed in a unanimous vote.

Then it vanished — apparently pushed aside by more pressing concerns.

“Boy, we must have just missed it,” said Tim Kelly, a former representative who, as chairman of the house committee on education, had the power to bring the bill to a vote last year. “I can’t imagine why I wouldn’t have been in favor.”

Advocates of so-called dual enrollment are hoping their next attempt won’t meet the same fate. They want to lift a cap on state-funded college courses that students can take while still in high school. Dual enrollment is widely considered to be one of the most powerful ways to increase the number of people who earn college degrees.

In an inaugural address to the legislature, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer promised to sharply increase the number of Michiganders with degrees to 60 percent by 2030. That number currently hovers around 43 percent, putting Michigan in the bottom third of states.

Michigan is one of five states that limit dual enrollment; its limit is the strictest of any state. Advocates say that limiting students to 10 college courses in four years is unusual and unnecessary.

The cap is not the only obstacle preventing students from earning valuable experiences — not to mention college credits — before they turn 18.

It may not even be the most significant. When advocates worry that the growth of dual enrollment in Michigan is slowing, they lay much of the blame on financial incentives that give schools little reason to help students dual enroll.

“I think we should look at [lifting the cap], but we should also look at the funding mechanism,” said Brenda Carter, a state representative who serves on the house education committee. “How many schools in Michigan are limited in what they can offer their students because of funding?”

Schools are required to pay roughly $7,800 in annual tuition for students who choose to take college courses, and some have suggested that the state should help offset those costs.

But any new funding for dual enrollment would require a political battle. Lifting the cap, less so.

That’s why supporters of lifting the cap were so bemused when, last year, a bill that had garnered strong bipartisan support in the Senate never went to a vote in the House.

“That was really surprising,” said Brandy Johnson, executive director of the Michigan College Access Network, a nonprofit that aims to increase the number of students who earn college degrees. In a 2015 report, the organization called for the legislature to “eliminate restrictive rules” surrounding dual enrollment.

Johnson guessed that the 2018 dual enrollment bill slipped through the cracks in part because of its relatively low profile. It was eclipsed in the news cycle by an ongoing debate about school funding and by a political furor over social studies learning standards.

Several legislators told Chalkbeat they didn’t know that dual enrollment is capped.

Among them are Carter and Dayna Polehanki, a Democrat who was elected to the senate in November and is now a vice-chair of the Senate’s education committee, said she became familiar with dual enrollment while working as a high school teacher in Macomb County.

She thought it was good for her students, but said she wanted to learn more about the cap before making up her mind. She pointed out that if students decided to take courses at a community college that were already offered at their local school, schools could find themselves paying for teachers and for students’ community college tuition.

“I can see both sides of that issue,” she said.

The Republican chairs and vice-chairs of both the Senate and House education committees did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.

Advocates of dual enrollment say it’s worth sorting out the challenges that could come with allowing high schoolers to take unlimited college credits.

With the cap lifted, high school students could earn a diploma from a traditional high school and simultaneously complete a technical certification or an associates degree from a community college. Those students would save money on college credits, and they would finish high school better-prepared for college than peers who’d never set foot in a college classroom.

Lifting the cap “expands access for students, especially low-income students,” Johnson said.

She warned that not all high schoolers are ready to take a heavy college course load. If the cap is lifted, she said, the state should also make sure that students meet a “readiness threshold” — perhaps a minimum standardized test score — before being allowed to dive into college coursework.

But she added that after the bill passed the Senate last year, she believed it had a chance in 2019.

“I am very hopeful,” she said.

Kelly, who reached his term limit in the house last year, said he hopes his former colleagues take a second look at the issue.

“I would hope somebody does,” he said.

Preschool math

Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker plows $100 million more into early ed — but no universal preschool this year

In the past decade, as other states have ramped up their spending on early education, budget-strapped Illinois has fallen further behind.

In his first budget proposal as governor on Wednesday, J.B. Pritzker, a philanthropist who has contributed millions to early childhood causes at home and nationally, laid out a plan to reverse that Illinois trend with a historic $100 million bump for preschool and other early learning programs.

“I have been advocating for large investments in early childhood education for decades, long before I became governor,” he said, laying out a $594 million early education spending plan that is part of an overall $77 billion package. “Investing in early childhood is the single most important education policy decision government can make.”

Later in the address, Pritzker detailed a smaller increase, but one that some advocates said was a welcome shift in policy: He described first steps toward repairing a child care assistance program that was drained of families and providers during the administration of his predecessor, Gov. Bruce Rauner. The new governor plans to spend $30 million more to rebuild the program. He also will increase income eligibility so an estimated 10,000 more families can participate.

“These priorities turn us in a different direction,” said Maria Whelan, CEO of Illinois Action for Children, which administers the child care assistance program in Cook County. Compared with the state’s previous approach, “I feel like I just woke up from a bad dream.”

Pritzker’s otherwise “austere” budget address, as he described it in his speech, came 12 days after his office revealed that the state’s budget deficit was 14 percent higher than expected — some $3.2 billion.

The state’s early childhood budget funds a preschool-for-all program that serves more than 72,000 3- and 4-year-olds statewide in a mix of partial- and full-day programs. Chicago has been using its share of state dollars to help underwrite its four-year universal pre-K rollout, which has gotten off to a bumpy start in its first year.  

The state early childhood grant also supports prenatal programs and infant and toddler care for low-income families.

Pritzker pledged on the campaign trail to pave a pathway toward universal pre-K for the state’s 3- and 4-year-olds, and this budget falls short of the estimated $2.4 billion it would cost, at least according to a moonshot proposal made in January by the lame duck state board of education. The state’s school Superintendent Tony Smith stepped down at the end of January, and Pritzker has yet to name a successor.

But policymakers and advocates on Wednesday said the considerable $100 million increase is a step in the right direction for a state that has been spending less per student than many of its neighbors. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, Illinois spent $4,226 per young learner in 2016-2017 compared with a national average that topped $5,000. Seven states spent $7,000 or more.   

“This is a big amount in one year, but also it is what we think is needed to move programs forward, and we’re excited to see it,” said Ireta Gasner, vice president of policy at the Ounce of Prevention, an early-education advocacy group

One item Gasner said she hoped to hear, but didn’t, was increased spending on home visiting programs for families with new babies. Spending on such programs next year will remain flat under Pritzker’s proposal. Home visiting has been suggested as one antidote to the state’s troublingly high maternal mortality rates. An October report from the state’s public health department found that 72 percent of pregnancy-related deaths in Illinois were preventable.

“Overall, we still have a long way to go to serve our youngest families and youngest children,” she said.  

In addition to the $100 million, Pritzker’s office reportedly also will add $7 million to early intervention services for young learners with disabilities and set aside $107 million to help buffer the impact of his new minimum wage increase on daycare center owners and other child care providers who operate on thin margins.

On Tuesday, Pritzker signed into a law a minimum wage increase to $15 an hour.

Illinois faces a critical staffing shortage of preschool providers, and several operators have warned that they face mounting pressures from staff turnover, increased regulations, and stagnant reimbursement rates.