metrics matter

New York’s graduation rates are up. Does that mean students are learning more?

PHOTO: Seth McConnell, The Denver Post

New York City released good news on Wednesday: For the fifth year in a row, more students in the city are earning a high school diploma, reaching a record 74.3 percent.

“We see constant progress across the board,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio at a press conference celebrating the graduation rates. “Every borough, people of every background, the trend is so clear.”

But do increasing graduation rates reflect more students performing higher-level work? The question is complicated for several reasons. As graduation rates have climbed over the last few years, the state has simultaneously made it easier to earn a diploma. Additionally, earning a diploma does not mean students are ready for college. And the rates themselves may be deceptive; there are a variety of ways schools can artificially inflate them.

Amid a national conversation about whether graduation rates are a valid measure of student progress or whether they are inherently fungible, New York provides another example of how graduation rates can be a slippery tool for evaluating learning. Here’s our breakdown of the reasons to be skeptical of graduation rate data.

Reason 1: The state has eased graduation requirements.

New York has made it easier for students to earn diplomas in recent years though it is tricky to discern whether these changes are driving increases in graduation rates.

In the first — and likely most significant — change, students can opt out of a social studies exit exam and instead take a different test in subjects like science, math, arts or career and technical education. (Students are still required to take four other Regents exams in specific subjects.) The change was first implemented in 2014, but state officials have been adding alternative paths over the years, including allowing students to substitute a work-readiness credential for the final exam.

On Wednesday, state officials announced that 9,900 students took advantage of one of these testing or credential options in 2017. City officials said they estimate about 2,000 students used one of these options. (There are a little more than 200,000 students who began in this year’s graduation cohort statewide and about 73,000 of those students are from New York City.)

That is enough to account for a significant graduation rate boost, but State Commissioner MaryEllen Elia cautioned not to jump to that conclusion. Students who earned a diploma this way may have passed the social studies exam, in addition to completing a different path, but the school picked the second exam to record for official purposes. They also may have been able to pass the exam but chose another path instead, she said.

“We can’t draw any conclusions off of that by saying that one helped or didn’t help the other,” Elia said.

On top of that, more students can now appeal a failed exam. Previously, students had to score a 62 to appeal their score, but as of 2016, students can appeal a score of 60 or higher and they no longer have to adhere to an attendance requirement. Based on the city’s initial analysis, about 1,932 students took advantage of the appeals process, which is more than four times the number of students who graduated using this option before the state made this change in 2016.

Is there more? Yes. The state also eased graduation requirements for students with disabilities, who only had to pass two exit exams to graduate starting in 2016. This December, the state’s top policymakers eased the requirements further, allowing students with disabilities to graduate without passing any exit exams — a change that could affect future graduation rates. This year, the city estimates only about 230 students used this option.

Also important to note: These changes to graduation requirements were all made in the last several years. This year, graduation requirements were essentially the same and graduation rates still increased. However, teachers, students and schools had more time to prepare for and use the additional options.

Reason 2: Earning a high school diploma doesn’t mean you’re ready for college.

What does it mean to be a high school graduate in New York State?

Policymakers and advocates have long struggled to decide what a diploma should signify about a student’s accomplishments and knowledge. The lack of any formal definition is an important reason to be skeptical of using graduation rates as a marker of academic success.

Critics often point out that many graduates are not prepared for college-level work. Though 74 percent of students graduated in New York City last year, only about 64 percent of graduates earn high enough test scores to avoid remedial classes at CUNY colleges. (And that number is itself a moving target — it shot up this year in part because CUNY changed how it defines college-readiness.)

“Mayor de Blasio should hold the self-congratulation because the achievement gap remains too large, college readiness rates are too low, and watered-down criteria may explain gains,” said Jenny Sedlis, executive director of StudentsFirstNY.

Education department officials pointed out that the city’s college-readiness rate would have increased by 6 percentage points in 2017 even without CUNY’s changes — a sign that more students are leaving high school prepared for college, not just earning diplomas. In addition, more city students are enrolling in college after they graduate, the officials noted.

Reason 3: Schools can game their graduation rates.

A few years ago, New York City was rocked by a series of reports that schools were boosting graduation rates by changing grades or enrolling students in courses that fell far below the state’s standards. The practice, called “credit-recovery,” is meant to allow students flexibility if they fail a course, but was being misused in some cases to give students credit with limited instruction.

The problem of reporting faulty graduation rates is not confined to New York City. In Washington, D.C., it recently came to light that students received diplomas after missing too many classes. Chicago had to lower its graduation rate after inflating it for years. Tennessee couldn’t keep track of its own graduation rate last year.

There is no reason to suspect foul play this year, said Phil Weinberg, deputy chancellor, Division of Teaching and Learning.

“We feel very comfortable that we’re showing authentic gains here in the graduation statistic,” Weinberg said. “We have nothing that leads us to believe that anyone is trying to mess with stats.”

Christina Veiga contributed reporting.

Update: This story has been updated to note that city officials say the city’s college-readiness rate would have increased several percentage points last year even if CUNY had not eased its college-readiness requirements.

Momentum

Memphis moves from problem child to poster child on Tennessee’s new school improvement list

PHOTO: Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal
Memphis has been a hub of local, state, federal, and philanthropic school improvement work since Tennessee issued its first list of "priority schools" in 2012.

The city that has been the epicenter of Tennessee’s school improvement work since 2012 got encouraging news on Friday as fewer Memphis schools landed on the state’s newest list of troubled schools.

Only 45 public schools in Memphis were designated “priority schools,” compared to 57 in 2014 and 69 in 2012.

Meanwhile, more schools in Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jackson were among the 82 placed on priority status, either for being ranked academically in the state’s bottom 5 percent or having a graduation rate of less than 67 percent. They are now eligible for a share of $10 million in state grants to pay for extra resources this year — but also interventions as harsh as state takeover or closure.

Half of the schools are new to the list but won’t face takeover or closure. Those school communities will begin working with the state education department to develop district-led improvement plans, a change from previous years.

Charter schools face the most dire consequences for landing on the list if they’re authorized by local districts. In Memphis, seven will close at the end of the school year, impacting more than 1,700 students:

  • City University School Girls Preparatory
  • Du Bois Elementary of Arts Technology
  • Du Bois Middle of Arts Technology
  • Du Bois Middle of Leadership Public Policy
  • Granville T. Woods Academy of Innovation
  • Memphis Delta Preparatory
  • The Excel Center (adult education)

Two other priority-status high schools already closed their doors in May. They were operated by former city schools superintendent Willie Herenton’s W.E.B. DuBois charter network.

This was the first priority list issued under Tennessee’s new system for holding schools and districts accountable and is based mostly on student test scores from 2015-16 and 2016-17. No negative results from last school year were factored in because of emergency state legislation passed to address widespread technical problems that disrupted Tennessee’s return to online testing in the spring.

The distribution of more priority schools beyond Memphis was notable.

“Shelby County in particular has had some momentum … (but) we have other districts that have not had that same momentum,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen during a morning call with reporters.

She praised Shelby County Schools for “changing the landscape” in Memphis by closing at least 15 priority schools since 2012 and for creating its own Innovation Zone to improve other schools. Another catalyst, she said, was the 2012 arrival of Tennessee’s Achievement School District, which has taken over dozens of low-performing Memphis schools and assigned them to charter networks, spurring a sense of urgency.

But student gains have been better under the iZone than within the state-run district. Of the 25 priority schools absorbed by the iZone, 16 have moved off of priority status, compared to eight that have been taken over by the state. 

“When you really try and find great school leaders and great teachers, when you extend time, when you focus on professional development, and when you also focus on accountability, good things are going to happen in schools,” said Brad Leon, a Shelby County Schools strategist who supervised the iZone in its early years.

Of the 45 Memphis schools on the newest list, less than two-thirds are within Shelby County Schools, and five of those could be eligible for state takeover, according to Antonio Burt, who oversees priority school work for Tennessee’s largest district. He declined to name them.

The state Board of Education signed off on the priority list on Friday during a special meeting. The board also approved its 2018 list of “reward schools” to acknowledge a fifth of the state’s public schools for student achievement and academic growth in the last year.

Tennessee’s priority list is issued every three years, and this was the third one since 2012. But unlike with the two earlier rosters, 2018 priority status does not necessarily put a school on track for state takeover. That’s now an option of last resort as the state seeks to be more collaborative with local school leaders.

PHOTO: Ruma Kumar
Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson visits classrooms and students in 2015. He’s led Tennessee’s largest district since 2013.

“Our new school improvement model takes a student-focused, evidence-based approach to tailor interventions for our priority schools,” said McQueen, who promised to work closely with school communities to provide new resources. 

Those new resources will be welcomed in Memphis, where Shelby County Schools has absorbed the cost of continuing interventions even as federal and state grants expire.

“At the end of the day, we’re very proud of the work, but we’re not satisfied,” said Superintendent Dorsey Hopson. “We’re going to keep on working.”

In Nashville, Mayor David Briley called the increase from 15 to 21 priority schools “unacceptable” and promised to make swift improvements in the state’s second largest school system.

Below is a sortable 2018 list, and you can learn more about the state’s 2018 accountability work here.

Priority schools

Struggling Tennessee schools find out Friday if they could face state intervention

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Tennessee's 2018 list of priority schools will chart the state's school improvement strategies, investments, and interventions for at least the next year. The state issued earlier priority lists in 2012 and 2014.

School communities hovering at the bottom on student achievement have been watching anxiously to see how they could fare under Tennessee’s new system for holding schools and districts accountable.

They’ll begin to find out on Friday when the Education Department releases its 2018 list of “priority schools” in Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent, the threshold for determining state investments such as extra money — and interventions as harsh as takeover and even closure.

The unveiling will come as the state Board of Education signs off on the list during a specially called meeting.

The 2018 priority list will be the state’s first in four years, as well as the first under a new accountability system developed in response to a 2015 federal education law. The roster will chart the state’s school improvement strategies, investments, and interventions for at least the next year.

Underperforming charter schools could face the toughest consequences. Those making the list will be shuttered next spring if they were authorized by local school districts. (Tennessee has state-authorized charters too, but those schools face closure only if they rank at the bottom in both 2018 and 2021.)

Calculating this year’s priority list — which initially was supposed to factor in the last three years of student test scores — has not been simple.

Because technical problems marred Tennessee’s return to online testing this spring, state lawmakers passed legislation ordering that the most recent scores can’t be used to place new schools on the priority list or move them into the state’s Achievement School District for assignment to charter networks. Instead, the newest priority schools are based mostly on student achievement from the two prior school years. However, a school on the 2014 list could potentially come off the new roster if its scores were good this year.

The legislation doesn’t mean that some repeat priority schools can’t be taken over by the state based on previous years’ test results. However, most of those are expected to continue under their current state-monitored school improvement plans. Schools that are new to the list will have to develop similar plans in collaboration with the Education Department.


READ: One state, three lists of troubled schools — another consequence of Tennessee’s testing mess


The newest priority lineup will be among a flurry of school accountability lists being released on Friday. The State Board also will sign off on “reward schools” that have achieved the highest performance or made extraordinary progress since last year, as well as a district roster that rates 145 Tennessee school systems based on a multitude of new measures under the state’s education plan as part of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.

You can find the list of schools at risk of making the newest priority list here.