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.

Surprising report

EXCLUSIVE: Did online snafus skew Tennessee test scores? Analysts say not much

PHOTO: TN.gov
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen will release the results of Tennessee's 2017-18 standardized test this week, but the reliability of those TNReady scores has been in question since this spring's problem-plagued administration of the online exam.

An independent analysis of technical problems that disrupted Tennessee’s online testing program this spring is challenging popular opinion that student scores were significantly tainted as a result.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Wednesday that the disruptions to computerized testing had “small to no impact” on scores, based on a monthlong analysis by the Human Resources Research Organization, or HumRRO. The Virginia-based technical group has expertise in psychometrics, the science behind educational assessments.

“We do believe these are valid, reliable scores,” McQueen told Chalkbeat on the eve of releasing state- and district-level scores for TNReady, the state’s standardized test in its third year.


Here are five things to know as Tennessee prepares to release TNReady scores


The state hired the research group to scrutinize several issues, including whether frequent online testing snafus made this year’s results unreliable. For instance, during at least seven days out of the three-week testing window, students statewide reported problems logging in, staying online, and submitting their tests — issues that eventually prompted the Legislature to roll back the importance of scores in students’ final grades, teacher evaluations, and school accountability systems.

But the analysis did not reveal a dramatic impact.

“For students who experienced the disruption, the analysis did not find any systematic effect on test scores that resulted from lapses in time between signing in and submitting their tests,” McQueen told Chalkbeat.

There was, however, a “small but consistent effect” if a student had to log on multiple times in order to complete the test, she said.

“When I say small, we’re talking about an impact that would be a handful of scale score points out of, say, a possible 200 or 250 points,” McQueen said.

Analysts found some differences in test score averages between 2017 and 2018 but concluded they were not due to the technical disruptions.

“Plausible explanations could be the students just didn’t know the (academic) standards as well and just didn’t do as well on the test,” McQueen said. “Or perhaps they were less motivated after learning that their scores would not count in their final grades after the legislation passed. … The motivation of our students is an unknown we just can’t quantify. We can’t get in their minds on motivation.”

About half of the 600,000 students who took TNReady this year tested with computers, and the other half used paper materials in the state’s transition to online exams. Those testing online included all high school students.

Out of about 502,000 end-of-course tests administered to high schoolers, educators filed about 7,600 irregularity reports – about 1.4 percent – related to problems with test administration, which automatically invalidated those results.

The state asked the analysts specifically to look at the irregularity reports for patterns that could be cause for concern, such as demographic shifts or excessive use of invalidations. They found none.

TNReady headaches started on April 16 – the first day of testing – when students struggled to log on. More problems emerged during the weeks that followed until technicians finally traced the issues to a combination of “bugs in the software” and the slowness of a computerized tool that helps students in need of audible instructions. At one point, officials with testing company Questar blamed a possible cyberattack for shutting down its online platform, but state investigators later dismissed that theory.

While this year’s scores officially are mostly inconsequential, McQueen emphasized Wednesday that the results are still valuable for understanding student performance and growth and analyzing the effectiveness of classroom instruction across Tennessee.

“TNReady scores should be looked at just like any data point in the scheme of multiple data points,” she said. “That’s how we talk about this every year. But it’s an important data point.”

heads up

Tennessee will release TNReady test scores on Thursday. Here are five things to know.

PHOTO: Getty Images/Kali9

When Tennessee unveils its latest standardized test scores on Thursday, the results won’t count for much.

Technical problems marred the return to statewide online testing this spring, prompting the passage of several emergency state laws that rendered this year’s TNReady scores mostly inconsequential. As a result, poor results can’t be used to hold students, educators, or schools accountable — for instance, firing a teacher or taking over a struggling school through the state’s Achievement School District.

But good or bad, the scores still can be useful, say teachers like Josh Rutherford, whose 11th-grade students were among those who experienced frequent online testing interruptions in April.

“There are things we can learn from the data,” said Rutherford, who teaches English at Houston County High School. “I think it would be unprofessional to simply dismiss this year’s scores.”

Heading into this week’s data dump, here are five things to know:

1. This will be the biggest single-day release of state scores since the TNReady era began three years ago.

Anyone with internet access will be able to view state- and district-level scores for math, English, and science for grades 3-12. And more scores will come later. School-by-school data will be released publicly in a few weeks. In addition, Tennessee will unveil the results of its new social studies test this fall after setting the thresholds for what constitutes passing scores at each grade level.

2. Still, this year’s results are anticlimactic.

There are two major reasons. First, many educators and parents question the scores’ reliability due to days of online testing headaches. They also worry that high school students stopped trying after legislators stepped in to say the scores don’t necessarily have to count in final grades. Second, because the scores won’t carry their intended weight, the stakes are lower this year. For instance, teachers have the option of nullifying their evaluation scores. And the state also won’t give each school an A-F grade this fall as originally planned. TNReady scores were supposed to be incorporated into both of those accountability measures.

3. The state is looking into the reliability of the online test scores.

In addition to an internal review by the Education Department, the state commissioned an independent analysis by the Human Resources Research Organization. Researchers for the Virginia-based technical group studied the impact of Tennessee’s online interruptions by looking into testing irregularity reports filed in schools and by scrutinizing variances from year to year and school to school, among other things.

4. The reliability of paper-and-pencil test scores are not in question.

Only about half of Tennessee’s 600,000 students who took TNReady this year tested on computers. The other half — in grades 3-5 and many students in grades 6-8 — took the exams the old-fashioned way. Though there were some complaints related to paper testing too, state officials say they’re confident about those results. Even so, the Legislature made no distinction between the online and paper administrations of TNReady when they ordered that scores only count if they benefit students, teachers, and schools.

5. Ultimately, districts and school communities will decide how to use this year’s data.

Even within the same district, it wasn’t uncommon for one school to experience online problems and another to enjoy a much smoother testing experience. “Every district was impacted differently,” said Dale Lynch, executive director of the state superintendents organization. “It’s up to the local district to look at the data and make decisions based on those local experiences.”

District leaders have been reviewing the embargoed scores for several weeks, and they’ll share them with teachers in the days and weeks ahead. As for families, parents can ask to see their students’ individual score reports so they can learn from this year’s results, too. Districts distribute those reports in different ways, but they’re fair game beginning Thursday. You can learn more here.