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Interactive map offers illustration of college-readiness disparities

If a picture is worth a thousand words, the Annenberg Institute for School Reform is betting that an interactive map is worth about 5,000.

The institute today released a 10-page report arguing that demography is still destiny for New York City schoolchildren, at least in terms of whether they are prepared for college. Accompanying the report is a new data tool that lets users handicap students’ chances of graduating from high school ready for college by neighborhood.

The interactive map was created by the Coalition for Educational Justice, the Annenberg Institute’s organizing partner in the city. CEJ has called attention to the city’s low college-readiness rate in the past.

Since last year, the city and state have released college-readiness rates for each high school. The state’s measure looks at students’ scores on reading and math Regents exams and how many students earn advanced diplomas, and the city’s measure adds performance in college-preparatory courses and tests and real college enrollment rates. Both methods found that fewer than a quarter of city students in the Class of 2011 graduated college-ready in four years, a statistic that both are using to justify changes to curriculum and assessment. The city is also launching new initiatives aimed at boosting the numbers.

But the city and state data reflect only where students attend school. The Annenberg Institute instead looked at students’ home addresses. Breaking the city into nearly 300 different neighborhoods, researchers found that the whiter, the wealthier, and the more educated the women in each area, the more likely students there were to graduate ready for college, regardless of where they attended high school.

On the Upper East Side, for example, 70 percent of students hit the college-readiness mark. But cross 96th Street into East Harlem, and a student’s chances of graduating college-ready drops to just 18 percent. Next door in Harlem, the rate falls to 13 percent. Continue on a little farther west to Morningside Heights, where Columbia University is located, and the rate rises again to 29 percent.

The report concludes that the Bloomberg administration’s sustained policy to replace long-struggling high schools with smaller options has not made a dent in even longer-standing inequities. It reads,

In a broadside that former Chancellor [Joel] Klein and Michelle Rhee published in 2010, they declared, “The single most important factor determining whether students succeed in school is not the color of their skin or their ZIP code or even their parents’ income – it is the quality of their teacher.” Yet our findings indicate that ZIP code, income, and, above all, the racial composition of students’ neighborhoods is very strongly correlated with student success.

At a press conference about the report this morning, several recent high school graduates said they were surprised when they were told they would have to take remedial courses once they got to college. Lisandra Tejada graduated from the Bronx High School of Medical Science in 2009 after just three years, with Regents scores in the 80s, well above the level considered college-ready. But she still failed the math placement test at Lehman College.

A former classmate, Jade Williams, stayed on for a fourth year, but as a senior she took only art, math, and physical education. That was all the school offered that she hadn’t previously taken, she said.

Both students said their high school had focused almost exclusively on preparation for the Regents exams required for graduation, with lessons centering on how to guesstimate and eliminate answers to increase the likelihood of getting a questions right.

“High school was the most easy thing in my life,” said Williams, whose neighborhood, Highbridge, has a college-readiness rate of just 15 percent. “I think middle school was more challenging.”

The press conference was organized by CEJ, and some of the report’s recommendations, such as to boost counseling services, closely mirror others the group has put forward in the past. Another recommendation, to increase the number of schools designed to admit students with a wide range of skill levels, echoes a 2009 report from the Center for New York City Affairs.

The city’s high school progress reports this year will factor in a school’s college readiness rate into its final score for the first time. The reports are set to be released next week. Department officials said last year that they expected schools’ scores to fall substantially if they did not do more to prepare students for college.

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