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Graduation rates vary widely at schools serving similar students

City high schools that serve similar students graduate their students at wildly different rates, according to a report to be released today.

Among schools with the neediest students, one school graduated 90 percent of students in four years. Another graduated just 34 percent, the report found.

The report confirms that the city’s highest-performing schools overwhelmingly enroll students who already had high test scores and attendance rates. But it also shows that even among schools serving the highest-need students, some do a much better job graduating students than others.

The report was prepared by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, the group that successfully fought for an extra $5.4 billion in 2004 for the city’s neediest schools.

The study looked at ninth graders who entered high school in 2004.  It separated high schools into peer groups based on the demographics and eighth-grade academic performances of that class.  (Read the full report here.)

Some of the report’s conclusions will not come as a surprise. Schools whose students had higher eighth-grade test scores had higher graduation rates, for example. And eighth grade attendance was the strongest predictor of a high school’s graduation rates, the report found.

Because high achievement and high attendance were strongly correlated with high graduation rates, selective schools and zoned schools in high-achieving districts performed much better than others. But even within school peer group, there were wide gaps in graduation rates.

The report reiterates concerns that impending higher graduation standards could have an outsized impact on city students. Just over 60 percent of the cohort that began school in 2004 graduated four years later. But only 42 percent earned a Regents diploma, the more rigorous of the state’s diploma levels that will soon become the standard for most students. And among schools serving the highest-needs students, the rate of students earning Regents diplomas ranged from zero to 83 percent.

City officials said that the report’s findings validate its move toward replacing large, struggling high schools with small ones. “This report confirms what a landmark study found in June—that, by creating hundreds of new, high quality options, our small school strategy is improving outcomes for our neediest students,” said DOE spokesman Matt Mittenthal, referring to an MDRC study that found that the city’s small, non-selective high schools boost needy students’ chances of graduating.

The report did find that among schools with the lowest-achieving incoming ninth-graders, schools with high graduation rates did tend to be smaller than schools with low rates. But many small schools posted low rates and many large schools posted high ones, prompting the study’s authors to tentatively conclude that other factors like instructional strategy are critical to a school’s success, whatever its size.

Figuring out exactly what those factors are will be the focus of CFE’s next report, said Helaine Doran, the group’s deputy director. By studying the schools with high-risk students that also posted high graduation rates, CFE hopes to identify best practices. “How do you share these practices that clearly some are figuring out?” Doran said.

CFE argues that schools that serve large numbers of needy students should receive a greater share of the funding won in the 2004 Contracts for Excellence settlement. But determining how schools should spend that money is equally important, Doran said.

“The resources have to be spent right,” she said. “And as budgets are getting tighter, we have to disseminate best practices.”