Inquiry promised

Memphis school leaders want to know if ‘million-dollar scholar’ campaigns are hurting more than helping

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
At some Memphis high schools, assemblies are held to celebrate academic all-stars and the scholarship money they've been awarded.

Two elected school leaders in Memphis promised Monday to look into a former high school student’s complaint of being pressured to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships.

Anisah Karim graduated in 2016 from Shelby County Schools and detailed concerns about her high school’s approach to college admissions in an opinion piece published recently by Chalkbeat. She also spoke last month to the school board about her experience, which included being pulled out of class daily to complete applications.

The piece has garnered a large readership and attracted coverage from The Chronicle of Higher Education.

School board chairman Chris Caldwell said Karim’s complaint merits further investigation.

“It’s bad that she had to go through that, so I think it’s incumbent on me to gather all the facts,” Caldwell said. “We want all students to have a great experience in Shelby County Schools. So when that doesn’t happen, we want to see if it’s a bigger problem and go from there.”

Karim, who does not want to identify her alma mater, said she was ill-prepared for college because her school’s counselors pushed for lots of scholarship money instead of quality applications and finding the best fit for her as a student. After graduating, she started at Tennessee State University, but has transferred to the University of Memphis for her sophomore year. Karim also said that, during her senior year in high school, she and other students faced disciplinary actions if they did not turn in applications or other documents to meet the school’s goal, which she saw as arbitrary.

Board members say they want to understand the extent of such practices within Shelby County Schools.

Miska Clay Bibbs said Karim’s concerns will be discussed by the board’s academic committee, which she chairs.

Bibbs said she is aware of high schools pushing for students to apply to 100 colleges to amass scholarship offers, but doesn’t have enough information to say if that’s a good or bad thing. She noted that some application websites can help students apply to up to 50 schools at once for a low price.

She wants to meet with Karim and plans to gather information from school counselors, high school principals and charter leaders to discuss the concerns she’s raised.

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.

EXCELSIOR

22,000 New Yorkers will get new college scholarship from the state after 94,000 applied

PHOTO: Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo delivered his 2017 regional State of the State address at the University at Albany.

After a long wait, the official tally of New York’s new free-college recipients is here.

Nearly 22,000 New York state students qualified for the first round of the state’s new “Excelsior Scholarship,” which provides free tuition at CUNY and SUNY schools, state officials announced Sunday. Another 23,000 students who applied for the scholarship will receive free tuition through existing state and federal financial aid, which they may not have sought out were it not for the Excelsior application process.

The numbers are good news for students who will receive more tuition assistance. However, the number of recipients is a fraction of the approximately 94,000 students who applied, highlighting a persistent criticism that the scholarship’s reach may not live up to its hype.

“A college degree now is what a high school diploma was 30 years ago – it is essential to succeed in today’s economy,” said Governor Andrew Cuomo in a statement. “Our first-in-the-nation Excelsior Scholarship is designed so more New Yorkers go to college tuition-free and receive the education they deserve to reach their full potential.”

With the Excelsior Scholarship, New York became the first state in the country to cover tuition costs at both two and four-year institutions, putting it at the center of a national conversation about college affordability. The rollout had all the trappings of a major announcement: Cuomo unveiled the program standing next to free-college champion Senator Bernie Sanders and signed it sitting next to former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

But behind the hype, the state expected many applicants would not qualify because scholarship recipients are required to graduate in four years, with little wiggle room to fall behind, and must maintain decent grades. Students are also required to live and work in New York state after graduation for the same number of years they received the award.

The scholarship has also been criticized for catering mainly to middle-class families. Because it is a last-dollar program, students must first use existing state or federal aid, then Excelsior will make up any additional gaps in tuition funding. Many low-income students already qualify for free tuition through state and federal aid, leaving higher-income students mostly likely to benefit from the state program. (This year, students whose families make less than $100,000 per year can qualify and that number will increase to $125,000 by 2019.)

The state is already hailing the program as a success, saying that with the addition of the scholarship, 53 percent of full-time CUNY and SUNY students — or about 210,000 New Yorkers — can now attend college tuition-free. There are also more than 6,000 applications pending final approval, which means the total number of applicants is likely to rise.

The new scholarship drew wide interest from families and students. The state extended the application deadline because of a surge in applicants, which jumped from 75,000 in midsummer to 94,000 by the final deadline.

Students who did not receive the scholarship will see a $200 tuition hike this year, bringing the total cost to $6,670 per year for in-state students.