Alternate pathways

For a better life, Colorado teenagers travel to Wyoming to take a test

PHOTO: Anna Boiko-Weyrauch/Rocky Mountain PBS I-News

Three young women are going to take a test 90 miles away from home.

Just south of Cheyenne, Jackie Esparza pulls over her maroon Dodge SUV on Interstate 25 to pose for a selfie with the “Welcome to Wyoming” sign. The 19-year-old Thornton-resident is excited for the photo – it’s only the second time she’s been this far north.

The women are teen moms who never graduated high school but want to become cops or nurses. Their best chance is to earn their high school equivalency degree – but not by taking the GED offered in Colorado, they say.

In 2014, the GED high school equivalency test was rewritten, computerized and privatized. The content now reflects the national Common Core State Standards and costs $150 for all four modules – $90 more than previously. Since its transformation, the number of Coloradans taking and passing the new test each week has plummeted by 75 percent, according to state data.

Nineteen other states have responded to falling numbers of test takers by offering alternatives to the GED, such as the HiSET, run by the administrator of the GRE graduate entrance exam, or another called the Test Assessing Secondary Completion, or TASC.

The women on this road trip are attempting the HiSET test, which costs just $50. The closest test center is the Cheyenne campus of Laramie County Community College, where a third of the test takers this year came from Colorado, managers said.

“I just feel that it’s a little less intimidating than the actual GED,” said Lexis Hernandez, who flips through vocabulary flashcards in the backseat. “I feel a lot more confident studying this.”

Dropout rate impacts state

When she got pregnant and dropped out, Esparza joined more than 400,000 other adults in Colorado who didn’t finish high school.

Even though the state has more college graduates than the national average, one in 10 adults have no high school diploma or equivalent certificate. Without such credentials, they are cut off from trade schools, college and many well-paying jobs.

Esparza wanted to aim higher for herself. She has dreams like studying criminal justice in college and volunteering in Africa.

Esparza studied for the GED for more than a year and passed one subject test, science. She took the language arts section three times and was a few points away from passing, but almost ready to give up.

Esparza started looking for jobs, but found nothing satisfying.

“I don’t want to keep working at Panda Express and stuff like that,” she said. “I don’t want that for my life.”

State data suggest that more people like Esparza are discouraged from completing the GED since the test was rewritten, according to an I-News analysis of Colorado Department of Education data.

From 2011-2013, 77 percent of testers in Colorado completed all subject areas of the test after they took at least one. In 2014 and 2015, 52 percent of testers went on to complete all parts of the test.

The number of people passing the test has also plummeted. On average, 211 people a week in Colorado passed the GED from 2011 to 2013. Now the number of people passing has dropped 75 percent to about 52 people a week in 2014 and the first 10 months of 2015.

As of October, 2,276 people passed the GED in Colorado this year. In the three years before the test changed, an average of 10,949 people a year passed the test.

The state is not keeping up with the number of students who drop out of high school or businesses’ needs for high school-educated workers, said Shirley Penn, former adult educator and president of the Colorado Adult Education Professional Association.

Penn is a member of a community taskforce lobbying the Colorado Department of Education to offer alternatives to the GED.

“That has a huge impact on our state economically,” Penn said. “I think it hurts business and industry and I think it hurts the families because they’re stuck at that low income.”

The state is reviewing alternatives to the GED because its contract with the test’s vendor is set to expire in 2016, director of postsecondary readiness at the department, Misti Ruthven said.

The department asked makers of high school equivalency tests to submit proposals for implementation in Colorado. The department has received a few responses and will pass along the information to the State Board of Education for its meeting December 9-10, she said.

The number of test takers also dropped the last time the test changed in 2002, Ruthven said.

That year 11,216 people took and 6,967 people passed the test in Colorado, official GED data show. After the recent GED revision, 4,313 people took and 1,577 people passed the test in 2014.

For its part, the department couldn’t voice an opinion about the falling numbers.

“It’s very difficult to make comparisons from when the test changed and before that because we know it is a very different landscape and environment,” Ruthven said.

The State Board of Education is open to having multiple testing options, chairman Steve Durham said.

“The general feeling is that competitive options are a positive thing,” he said.

Alternative tests to the GED are “less rigorous,” said CT Turner, head of government relations for the GED Testing Service, and encouraged looking beyond the number of testers. He is concerned students will pass an alternative test and get a certificate but be unable to obtain higher degrees because they lack the necessary education.

“The preparation is what’s really important,” Turner said.

Third time a charm

Once Esparza arrives at the test center, she fumbles through her bag for notes and reviews facts from the Industrial Revolution.

“Pray for me!” she pleads as the disappears into the test room. An hour later, she’s disappointed. Esparza failed the social studies test by one point.

“I wasn’t even that confident about history,” she said, frowning.

Esparza returned a third time to Wyoming and retook the test.

On Oct.  22 she donned a cap and gown and processed to Pomp and Circumstance. The organization that helped her study for her high school equivalency certificate and paid for the tests, Westminster-based Hope House of Colorado, held a graduation ceremony for her and four other young women.

“I’m really excited because I’m moving on with my life,” she said after the ceremony.

Esparza has already applied to four colleges.

Chalkbeat brings you this report in partnership with Rocky Mountain PBS I-News. Learn more at rmpbs.org/news. Contact Anna Boiko-Weyrauch [email protected]

path to college

Nearly 60 percent of New York City students are heading to college, new data shows

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

Nearly 60 percent of New York City students continued their education after high school last year, maintaining an upward trend, according to statistics released Wednesday by the city’s education department.

Among city students who entered high school in 2012, 57 percent went on to enroll in college, vocational programs, or “public-service programs” such as the military, officials said – a two percentage-point uptick from the previous year. City officials also noted that more students are prepared for college than in prior years, though more than half of New York City students are still not considered “college ready.”

“More of our public school graduates are going to college than ever before,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement. “That is great news for our graduates and their families, and for the future of our city.”

The statistics are welcome news de Blasio, who has made college access a priority by providing funds and coaching to 274 high schools to help students plan for college, which can include college trips or SAT preparation. The city also eliminated the application fee for low-income students applying to the City College of New York and started offering the SAT for free during the school day.

New York City’s statistics also compare favorably to the national average. Among city students who graduated high school in 2016 (a smaller number than all those who entered high school four years earlier), 77 percent enrolled in a postsecondary path. Nationally, about 70 percent of students who recently graduated from high school enroll in college, as of 2015. It is slightly lower than the percentage of students statewide who finished high school and pursue postsecondary plans.

Still, while the city appears to be helping more students enroll in college, students still encounter problems once they arrive. Slightly above half of first-time, full-time students pursuing a bachelor’s degree in New York City’s public college system graduate in six years.

That is likely, in part, because not all students are prepared for college-level work.

Only 46 percent of New York City students met CUNY’s benchmark’s for college-readiness last year (students who don’t hit that mark must take remedial classes). The figure is higher than in previous years because CUNY eased its readiness standards, dropping a requirement that students take advanced math in high school. But even without those changes, the city estimates that college-readiness would have increased by four percentage points this year.

The gap between college enrollment and readiness is not unique to New York City

 Over the past forty years, the country has seen a spike in college enrollment — but that has not always translated into diplomas, particularly for students of color. Among students who entered college in 2007, only 59 percent graduated college in six years, with black and Hispanic students lagging far behind their white and Asian peers, according to a 2013 report by the National Center for Education Statistics.

exclusive

For almost half of Memphis graduates, formal education ends after high school

Just over half of 2016 graduates from Shelby County Schools went on to some sort of college training, according to a new report spotlighting whether Memphis students are preparing for the work of the future.

In all, 56 percent of the district’s 6,905 graduates enrolled in post-secondary education, compared to 63 percent statewide. And the percentage of students going on to community college — a big push under the state’s free tuition initiative known as Tennessee Promise — was 9 percentage points lower than the state’s average.

Here’s the breakdown for Shelby County Schools:

  • 38 percent went on to a four-year college or university (compared to 35 percent statewide);
  • 16 percent went to community college (statewide was 25 percent);
  • 1 percent went to a technical college (statewide was 3 percent)

The data was shared by the Tennessee Department of Education in its first-ever district-level reports on where students are going after graduating from high school. The reports were distributed recently as part of the state’s Drive to 55 initiative to equip 55 percent of Tennesseans with a post-secondary degree or certificate by 2025. Currently, that number stands at 40 percent.

Scroll to the bottom for the full reports acquired by Chalkbeat for Shelby County Schools, the Achievement School District, and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

“This was actually pretty revolutionary – it was not something that districts necessarily ever knew, or at least not in any comprehensive, data-driven way,” said spokeswoman Chandler Hopper of the department’s new reports.

“We think this data can help districts and the state learn more about how to better support students on their journey to post-secondary, particularly in targeting support for key groups of students, and how to better partner with higher education institutions so that ultimately students are successful.”

The information is a welcome resource for Terrence Brown, a former principal who recently became director of career and technical education for Shelby County Schools. Brown called the data “surprising,” especially that only 1 percent of 2016 graduates went on to technical college.

In his new role, Brown is helping to develop the district’s new academic plan with a focus on career readiness.

“We track (students) until the day (they) graduate, and after that it becomes a matter of state tracking,” Brown said. “So, this data is helpful. … We need to make sure students first of all have a good plan and vision for where their best skill set lies and start to put in pipelines early for them. We can use (the data) to backmap and inform how we do this.”

The percentages for post-secondary enrollment were lower for the Achievement School District, which seeks to turn around the state’s lowest-performing schools. In all, just over 40 percent of 2016 ASD grads went on to college training, up from 31 percent in 2015. (The report for the state-run district is based on data from only two of its four Memphis high schools, since the Pathways alternative schools did not have enough students to graduate, according to state officials.)

For the 227 graduates of Fairley and Martin Luther King Preparatory high schools:

  • 29 percent went to a four-year college or university;
  • 11 percent went to community college;
  • 1 percent went to technical college

“(The report is the) first time we’re seeing a comprehensive and contextualized set of results about post-secondary opportunities in Memphis,” said Sean Thibault, a spokesman for Green Dot Public Schools, which operates Fairley as a charter school.

Most of Fairley’s students are considered economically disadvantaged, and Thibault noted that the school outpaced the state average for students in that category. “We are proud of the rate at which our graduates are heading to four-year universities,” he said.

PHOTO: Mike Brown/The Commercial Appeal
Gov. Bill Haslam visits Southwest Tennessee Community College in 2015. According to a new state report, 16 percent of recent graduates of Shelby County Schools went on to community college.

For both Shelby County Schools and the ASD, the most popular in-state option was Southwest Tennessee Community College in Memphis. The reports also break down the districts’ graduates by individual high school, ACT score, subgroup and opportunities for early credit, such as Advanced Placement courses or dual enrollment.

The district-level reports come on the heels of this year’s statewide report on bridging the gap between high school and college. It was based on months of interviews with high school students who said they aren’t receiving adequate resources or guidance to set them on a path to college or career.

That report recommended more support for high school guidance counselors, as well as ensuring that more schools have college credit-bearing courses like dual enrollment or advanced placement classes, or have vocational programs that fit with industry needs.

District-level reports are below: