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Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña

Patrick Wall

Are New York City’s dropout and grad rates for English learners as bad as they look?

The dropout rate among English Language Learners in New York City increased by almost 5.5 percentage points in 2016 — a trend State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia called “disturbing” on Friday.

Advocates said they were alarmed, too, since the graduation rate for those students also fell by nearly 10 points.

But the city says the reality is less dramatic.

So, what’s the truth?

The dropout rate for ELL students did increase, but the total number of students classified as still learning English fell. That means the 5.5 percent increase in the dropout rate represents fewer than 90 students — a small fraction of the city’s high school students.

Moreover, the graduation rate for former ELL students, or students who were classified as English learners in the last two years, increased.

The city argues it is fairer to look at the graduation rate of both current and former English Language Learners together — because otherwise the success of students who improved enough to shed their ELL status goes unrecorded. Combining both current and former ELL students, 57 more students graduated this year.

Advocates are not having the city’s argument. Current English Language Learners already graduate in such small percentages that any backslide is concerning, said Abja Midha, a project director at Advocates for Children. About 31 percent of the city’s ELL students graduated in 2016.

“The fact that the graduation rate is going down, it’s an alarming trend,” Midha said.

It’s tough for an ELL student to graduate, since students must pass an English Regents exam. But Midha said it is more than possible, since there is a safety-net provision that allows ELL students to pass the English Regents with a lower grade and have their other Regents exams translated.

The state education department also maintained their stance that the statistics are problematic.

“These findings are disturbing and much more work needs to be done to ensure that ELLs are getting the services they need to stay in school and to graduate,” Elia said.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña noted that some English Language Learners entering the system without prior education can be tougher to get where they need to be for a diploma.

“It’s much easier if you have literacy already to transfer that literacy to another language,” Fariña said, “but many of them are coming from war-torn countries, they’re coming from the mountains, they’ve never been to school.”