graduation day

Statewide graduation rates tick up for most students, but not English learners

A slide from the state's report on annual graduation rates, which saw a continued drop for English language learners.

Fewer than one-quarter of the city’s 2013 high school graduates scored high enough on their Regents exams to be considered ready for college or a career, state education officials said today.

Across the state, nearly 75 percent of students who entered high school in 2009 graduated four years later, an improvement of almost one percentage point over last year. That improvement mirrored New York City’s, which saw its graduation rate increase from 60.4 percent to 61.3 percent—numbers that were first released by the Bloomberg administration last year.

Statewide, college and career readiness numbers also crept upward, but remained much lower. Just 37 percent of students across the state hit targets needed to be considered ready for college or a career. And while more students from almost every demographic group are graduating high school on time, a glaring exception is the state’s English language learners, who struggled for a second year to meet the state’s new graduation requirements.

Now required to pass five Regents exams with a score of 65 or higher, these students’ graduation rate dropped more than three percentage points since last year—from 34.3 percent to 31.4 percent—and nearly six percentage points since 2011. In New York City, where about one in seven students are classified as an English language learner, the two-year drop was even steeper, falling from 39.4 percent to 32.3 percent.

Advocates said they were disturbed by the downward trend for English learners, even if it was predictable. In 2011, the state did away with the less rigorous “local diploma,” which allowed students to graduate if they scored at least a 55 on the Regents exams.

“We feared that this was going to happen,” said Claire Sylvan, executive director of Internationals Network for Public Schools, which exclusively serves students who move to the United States with limited or no English language skills. Sylvan, who was in Albany for the Board of Regents meeting where the statistics were presented, said the results were “astounding” to see.

The presence of the local diploma, still available for students with disabilities, had helped prop up the city’s increased graduation rates for years.

“Raising standards and moving away from the local diploma was the right thing to do,” said Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch, noting the many groups of students who “rose to the challenge” of the higher standards.

Still, state education officials acknowledged the growing achievement gap, and said they were considering several changes to graduation requirements, include whether to give a different test to English language learners. The Regents were also planning to discuss ways give students more opportunities to graduate based on more than passing classes and standardized exams, including the creation of “pathways” that would put students on a career track starting in high school.

Officials also pointed out that once students progress past the English language learner classification, they graduate at a rate closer to the rest of the state, which State Education Commissioner John King said was proof that students could thrive if they’re given the right amount of academic support. Last year, “one-time ELL” students graduated at a 71 percent clip.

King used the announcement to rally support around the state’s implementation of the Common Core standards. Though some Regents exams were Common Core-aligned for the first time this year, students won’t need to pass those exams for graduation until the 2022 school year.

“Far too many students, even if they graduate from high school, still haven’t completed the advanced and rigorous course work to be ready for college or the workplace,” King said in a statement.

The state also announced that about 70 percent of about 2,200 students who entered a charter high school in 2009 graduated. That’s above the average graduation rate for New York City, where most of the state’s charter high schools are located.

New York City’s graduation rate isn’t news because former Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the city’s four-year graduation rates for 2013 in an unusually timed press conference last December. The city’s graduation rate represents a nearly 15-point jump since 2005.

City officials didn’t say much after the state’s announcement. Chancellor Carmen Fariña took the chance to tout the city’s pre-kindergarten expansion and push to improve middle schools.

“Graduation rates are moving in the right direction, but we have a long way to go,” Fariña said. “But the most important thing is also to keep in mind that it’s not about just getting into college, it’s staying there all four years.”

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A Whole New World

Strict rules, Snapchat, and eerie quiet: A first-generation college student adjusts to life on campus

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Daviary Rodriguez, a freshman at the University at Albany.

Daviary Rodriguez, who goes by Davi, sat in the back of his calculus class at the University at Albany on a recent afternoon, taking notes as his professor sprawled math equations across the board.

When she told the class to work on problems, Davi, 18, grinned he had already finished a couple questions while she was talking.

“I think it’s pretty easy,” he said, smiling.

As a freshman at the university, which is part of the State University of New York system, Davi is confident, excited about his newfound independence, and enjoying his classes. Still, as a first-generation college student from a working-class family in the Inwood neighborhood in New York City, Davi will have defied the odds if he makes it to graduation.

In New York City, officials have pushed to get more students like Davi to enroll in college and it seems to be working. But a major hurdle remains: helping students persist once they get there. Less than 30 percent of students from average-income neighborhoods in the city graduate college in six years, and that number drops to 16 percent for those from the poorest neighborhoods, according to a recent NYU study.

With that grim statistic in mind, nonprofits, colleges, and even high schools are working to help students get to and through college. Davi is relying on several such programs to help push him across the graduation finish line.

With Thanksgiving days away and finals around the corner, we spoke with Davi recently about the highs and lows of his first semester in college.

Davi during his calculus class at the University at Albany.

A summer of strict rules and study hours

Davi got an early start on college — five weeks early, to be exact.

This summer, he took part in an intensive college-prep course through the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), a 50-year-old program that provides academic and financial support to students from low-income families at public colleges across New York.

While his middle-class peers spent the waning days of summer bidding farewell to old friends, Davi was sitting through hours-long orientation lectures and silent study hours each night. In fact, the popular program — which enrolls motivated students who don’t meet SUNY’s typical admissions requirements — enforces a dress code during the summer orientation, bans cell phones outside of residence halls, and forbids participants from interacting with students who aren’t in the program, according to program rules obtained by the campus newspaper.

Maritza Martinez, the university’s Educational Opportunity Program director, said the strict rules are necessary to cram the basics of college life and academics into a brief summer course.

“We don’t have the luxury of not having a structured program,” she said. While low-income students typically are less likely to graduate than their peers, Martinez noted that the graduation rate among EOP participants is actually higher than the university’s overall rate.

During the summer crash course and throughout the school year, the program helps students develop study habits, apply for financial aid, and tend to their mental health. Davi was required to clock eight hours of library time each week, meet with counselors, and write an essay about stress management.

In addition to the academic guidance and money to help cover non-tuition expenses like textbooks and supplies, the program also provides a support network of peers from similar backgrounds. Davi, who was born in the Dominican Republic and raised in Upper Manhattan, said it’s reassuring to be surrounded by students who can relate to one another.

“The thought of college kind of scared me because I thought I was going to be surrounded by white people,” he said. “But that’s not the case now.”

A high school teacher who’s only a text away

When Davi’s group took a trip to the mall this summer, and later when a fellow participant was booted from the program, Davi shared the news via text message and Snapchat with a trusted confidant — his high school English teacher.

“The way I see my role is just to hear them out,” said Valerie Hennessy, who taught at Academy for Software Engineering in Manhattan. “They vent or tell me what they’re going through.”

Davi and Hennessy have kept in touch through a program at OneGoal, a national nonprofit focused on college readiness. (Hennessy now works for OneGoal coaching other teachers.) The program trains high school teachers to have frank conversations with students about picking and attending colleges, and then helps them stay connected with their former students through their first year of college to help troubleshoot problems.

It’s a response to statistics showing that a large proportion of low-income students don’t make it beyond the start of college, said Nikki Thompson, the executive director of OneGoal in New York City.

“In the first year of college, many, many students drop out for a variety of what we were argue are preventable reasons,” she said.

Davi said more high school teachers should keep in touch with students who are transitioning to college, since their former teachers can be a calming influence.

“College is a big place and not everybody can get help there,” he said. Students “should get help from the people they know more, from high school.”

An expensive investment

Even before stepping on campus, college was foreign territory for Davi.

Like many other first-generation college students, he relied largely on his high school to help him figure out where and how to apply. His parents supported his decision, but had scant advice to offer since they hadn’t gone through the process themselves.

“They didn’t really have input on what college I should have gone to,” Davi said. “My dad said that’s my own choice.”

Once he was accepted to college, the next hurdle was paying for it.

Though state and federal grants cover his tuition expenses, Davi still expects to rack up about $30,000 in debt, mainly to cover the cost of housing. (Like most low-income students, he did not qualify for the state’s new “Excelsior” scholarship, which targeted middle-income families.)

Kristin Black, a research fellow at New York University, noted that the high-school graduation rate for New York City students who are low-income, black or Hispanic is starting to get closer to that of their white, Asian, and higher-income peers. But the graduation gap widens when those students reach college.

Difficulty affording college tuition and all the expenses that come with it could be part of the problem, along with being unprepared for college-level work, said Black, who wrote a report on the graduation gaps but did not investigate the causes.

“The number of black and Latino students graduating from high school and all of that is great,” she said. “But we don’t necessarily see them maintaining those gains as they go through college.”

Getting used to the quiet

As his first semester winds down, Davi is slowly adjusting to college life.

He loves the free time between class, participating in the school’s marching band, and playing piano in the college’s rehearsal rooms.

But he’s still getting used to other aspects of campus — in particular, its location in a sleepy upstate city that feels nothing like the bustling metropolis where he grew up.

“I’ve been out in the night with friends and it’s really quiet, it’s really dark out,” he said. “When I’m in the city, hanging around, I see people, there’s lights everywhere, Times Square. For me, it’s just normal…But here, it’s just quiet.”

Fact check

To back up claim that schools must change, DeVos cites made-up statistic about the future of work

PHOTO: Gabriel Scarlett/The Denver Post

In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made a remarkable claim: “Children starting kindergarten this year face a prospect of having 65 percent of the jobs they will ultimately fill not yet having been created.”

This statistic bolsters DeVos’s view that schools need to radically change to accommodate a rapidly evolving economy.

But there’s a problem: that number appears to have no basis in fact.

A version of the 65 percent claim has been percolating for some time, across the world. After a number of British politicians repeated some iteration of the statistic, the BBC investigated its source.

That report found the claim gained popularity in a 2011 book by Cathy Davidson, a CUNY professor; this in turn was cited by a New York Times article. But attempts to track that claim back to an actual study have failed, which Davidson herself now concedes, saying she no longer uses the figure.

Others making the claim offer an even flimsier citation. For instance, a report released by the World Economic Forum says, “By one popular estimate, 65% of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types,” and simply cites a series of popular YouTube videos (which doesn’t even appear to make that precise claim).

Some even say the number is higher: A Huffington Post headline said that “85% Of Jobs That Will Exist In 2030 Haven’t Been Invented Yet.” The piece links to a report by Dell, which bases the claim on “experts” at a workshop organized by a group called Institute for the Future.

In short, no one has pointed to any credible research that lands on the 65 percent figure. When asked for a source for DeVos’s statistic, a spokesperson for the Department of Education said the 65 percent figure “might be an underestimation,” pointing to the Dell report, which offers no specific sourcing.

Of course, making predictions about the future of work is inherently tricky. But a recent report by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated areas where the most new jobs would be created between 2016 and 2026. The positions included software application developers but also personal care aides, nurses, fast food workers, home health aides, waiters, and janitors — and though that’s less than 10 years in the future, these are mostly jobs that have been around for some time.

Sweeping, unsourced claims like this about the future economy are not uncommon — and seem to be a driving force behind some policymakers’ approach to education. The fact that DeVos’s go-to number isn’t backed up by evidence raises questions about the foundation of her view that schools need dramatic overhaul.

After citing the 65 percent figure, DeVos continued, saying, “You have to think differently about what the role of education and preparation is.”