Deflating data

One in three Tennessee graduates shouldn’t have received high school diploma, state says

Update: State education officials walked back their tally of graduates with missing requirements after school leaders and superintendents alerted them to errors in the data. Here’s our story about the revised numbers, which Tennessee’s education department released more than two weeks after the State Board of Education’s report.

Tennessee has been praised nationally for its high graduation rate while also maintaining rigorous graduation requirements for high school.

But it turns out, that’s not entirely true.

A third of Tennessee students are receiving diplomas without meeting the state’s requirements, according to a new report by the State Department of Education.

During this week’s State Board of Education meeting, department leaders vowed to address the lapse.

“This couldn’t happen again,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Thursday. “We’ve got some pretty drastic measures that we’re taking.”

The findings come as the state digs deeper to understand why Tennessee high school graduates struggle to transition to jobs or further education. 

“This could explain some of our postsecondary success issues if kids are graduating without actually meeting graduation requirements,” said board member Wendy Tucker. “The requirements don’t mean much if kids don’t have to meet them.”

Students most often skipped out on requirements for required government and foreign language classes. White and minority students missed credits at similar rates, according to Chief Research Officer Nate Schwartz. It’s not clear how long the problem has persisted.

“This is the first year we’ve looked; this is the first year we’ve found it,” Schwartz said.

Reasons for missed credits included a lack of teachers in some subject areas, especially foreign language; data entry errors; and a dearth of school counselors.

The findings were included in the department’s “Seamless Pathways” report, released this week and detailing recommendations for preparing high school students for success after graduation. As part of that push, Gov. Bill Haslam told business and education leaders on Thursday that the state must step up its game in guiding high school students to college and careers.

“The finding that one-third of students are not taking the required core courses indicates a bigger issue — that students are not receiving sufficient guidance and attention when selecting their courses,” the report reads.  

Tennessee’s rigorous graduation requirements were set in 2009-10 as part of the Tennessee Diploma Project. To graduate from high school, students must earn at least 22 credits, including four courses in English and math, three in science, four in social studies, and two in foreign language.

Education officials aren’t interested in solving the problem by easing up on graduation requirements.

“I think this question about how we get our students to actually meet the requirements we set before they graduate is a hugely important one,” Schwartz said. “The reason it matters is because we think our requirements actually set our students on a path for (success).”

McQueen said preventive measures include flagging missed credits to local districts while there’s still time for students to earn them.

The findings deflate a narrative around Tennessee’s enforcement of rigorous graduation requirements. The state was recognized in a national report this fall from Achieve, Inc., a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization focusing on education reform.

“What’s impressive about Tennessee, is not only are you graduating kids who are more prepared (for college and career) than other states, you’re graduating many more kids than the national average,” Achieve chief operating officer Sandy Boyd said in November. “It shows that it can be done.”

Clarification, Jan. 31, 2017: This story has been clarified to reflect that the State Department of Education’s findings raise questions about the enforcement of Tennessee’s graduation standards, not the standards themselves.

Getting the diploma

New York eases graduation requirements for students with disabilities

Parent rally outside the state education building for more diploma options. (Courtesy Betty Pilnik)

In a significant change to New York’s graduation requirements, students with disabilities will soon be able to earn an alternative diploma without passing any of the state’s exit exams.

Instead, the state will allow them to replace a minimum score on the Regents exams with a work-readiness credential, which they can earn through work experience and vocational classes or by passing an exam that assesses entry-level work skills.

Supporters, including parents who lobbied for the rule change, say it is a reasonable way to prevent students with disabilities from missing out on a diploma because of low test scores. But critics have argued the policy would lower the state’s graduation standards.

On Monday, when the state Board of Regents approved the change as an “emergency measure,” state officials tried to preempt any suggestion that the change would water down the standards.

“We’re not saying that they have to do less. We’re saying that the standards are the same and the requirements are the same,” said Angelica Infante-Green, a deputy education commissioner, during the Regents’ monthly meeting. “What we’re talking about is, if you have a disability that precludes you from actually passing the exam, or demonstrating what you know with the current exams, this is the mechanism to do it.”

A Regents committee voted in favor of the rule Monday after it was added to their meeting agenda without prior notice or public comment — prompting an outcry from at least one education advocacy group. If the full board signs off Tuesday, the change will go into effect immediately, enabling students to graduate under the new requirements as early as next month.

The state currently grants different types of high-school diploma. A traditional “Regents” diploma requires students to pass four Regents exams. An alternative “local” diploma is available to certain students — including those with disabilities, who are still learning English, or who have struggled academically — who pass two exams or meet other requirements.

Students with disabilities only need a score of 55 (or 52, on appeal) on their math and English exams rather than the usual 65 to earn a local diploma. Under the new policy, they will not need to achieve any minimum score.

Instead, superintendents will review students’ work to check that it reflects appropriate knowledge of the material, students must pass their classes and participate in the exams. They will also have to earn a work-readiness credential called the Career Development and Occupational Studies Commencement Credential, or CDOS.

The credential, created in 2013 for students with disabilities, is meant to certify that students are ready for employment. There are two ways to earn it: One option allows students to complete 216 hours of vocational coursework and participate in job shadowing. The other lets students take an approved work-readiness exam, some of which have been criticized for lacking rigor.

It is unclear how many students would benefit from this new option. (Last year, only 418 students with disabilities took advantage of a “superintendent’s review” option allowing them to earn a local diploma by passing just the math and English Regents exams.) State officials have not estimated how many students may benefit from the new option but said they do not expect it to be a large number.

The policy is designed to help students like Lauren Elie and Brandon Pilnik, whose mothers were among the parents lobbying the state for years to change the graduation rules. After Monday’s vote, they burst into applause.

Brandon and Lauren, who are dating and each have a disability, are both one Regents exam shy of a diploma. Lauren, who missed the qualifying score on her English exam by one point, is working with kindergarteners as a teacher’s aide; Brandon is a musician who plays at a senior rehab center. Both have had to take internships instead of full-time jobs because they lack diplomas, their parents said.

“I was very excited, beyond excited,” said Betty Pilnik, Brandon’s mother, who has been fighting for the policy change for more than two years. “Anyone who knows Brandon knows that he deserves this.”

Ashley Grant, an attorney at Advocates for Children, said some of her organization’s clients have completed their required high-school courses but struggled to pass the exit exams. She said it was encouraging that the state is creating a route to graduation that bypasses the exams — which she does not consider to be the same as easing requirements.

“Simply removing the barrier of Regents exams doesn’t mean standards are being lowered,” she said.

But some proponents of strong state standards took the opposite view. Stephen Sigmund, executive director of the advocacy group High Achievement New York, who criticized the last-minute addition of the measure to the Regents’ agenda, noted that the latest graduation change comes just a year after the state created the “superintendents’ review” graduation option.

“The Regents shouldn’t make significant policy changes with an 11th hour and 59th minute addition to the agenda,” he said in a statement. “Removing another graduation requirement, demonstrating a minimum score on ELA and Math Regents exams, so soon after the last change is the wrong direction.”

The state will expected public comments on the new policy through Feb. 12. After that, the Regents are expected to vote on a permanent rule change in March.

Alex Zimmerman contributed reporting.

Test case

New York’s free-college program comes with a big catch: Students who fall off track risk losing their scholarships

PHOTO: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo delivers his State of the State address.

With thousands of college students about to finish their first semester under New York State’s Excelsior Scholarship Program, advocates, critics and researchers will be looking closely at one crucial question: How did they do?

The new scholarship — which provides free college tuition at state public schools to students whose families make less than $100,000 a year — is the first program in the nation in which a state offers free tuition at four-year colleges. But the program has also been criticized for its many restrictions, including strict credit requirements and an obligation to live and work in the state after graduation.

One early sign of the program’s effectiveness will be whether students can keep up with their classwork. The scholarship banks on the idea that students will not fall behind over the course of a year. The penalty for failing to complete the required credits by year’s end are substantial: Students must pay back a semester’s tuition and forfeit future funds.

Tracking the number of scholarship students who fail to complete courses in this first semester of the program will provide one indication of how many students may struggle to meet the requirements, experts said.

In the next two to three years, once there’s a lot of numerical data, we’re all going to have a much better sense of how this program is faring and what specific issues may arise that need to be ironed out,” said Arthur Ramsay, spokesman for the SUNY Student Assembly, which represents students throughout the State University of New York.

The state intends to expand the income eligibility for the program by 2019 to include families who make $125,000 or less a year.

When Gov. Andrew Cuomo first announced the scholarship last spring, critics jumped on the requirement that students complete 30 credits a year — the average course load required to graduate on-time — since many students struggle to finish in two or four years. But Cuomo argued that it will encourage more students to graduate faster, and that dragging out college makes it less likely students will ever complete a degree.

Eric Neutuch, a doctoral candidate at Northeastern who is studying financial aid, said that he could potentially see the credit requirement having both positive and negative effects. It is possible more students will sign up for extra credits in order to keep their scholarship, but losing a scholarship may throw off students who otherwise would have graduated, he said.

“There is potential that students will lose Excelsior, not regain it, owe money back to their college and throw their hands up and say, ‘I’m done with college,’” Neutuch said. More scrutiny is necessary to figure out what the result will be, he said.

The scholarship’s rules leave some wiggle room, but not a lot. If students fall behind, they can attempt to make up a class the next semester. Students are also allowed to count summer classes, though they are only eligible for the scholarship during the school year. Some students may also be granted hardship waivers for the death of a family member, health problems, or parental leave.

But the credit requirement may be particularly onerous for students not quite ready for college-level work. They must take a full course-load in addition to any remedial classes, which may be required for students in associate’s degree programs. Only 46 percent of New York City students meet the benchmark to avoid remedial classes at the City University of New York.

If history is any indication, college students from New York City will struggle with this set of rules. According to a CUNY report, only about 32 percent of students pursuing bachelor’s degrees completed 30 credits in 2014. (CUNY is now using a separate metric focused on freshman to track credit accumulation.) In associate degree programs, less than 10 percent of entering freshman in 2015 finished 30 credits in their first year.

State officials argue part of the scholarship’s goal is to improve that metric.

“The Excelsior Scholarship is designed to help as many students as possible attend college tuition-free while boosting on-time completion and reducing student debt,” said Elizabeth Bibi, a spokesperson from the governor’s office. “Most importantly, in its first year alone, the scholarship is already helping thousands of New Yorkers attend college with zero tuition-costs—something to be celebrated.”

But for many students, taking 30 credits each year is simply not possible, said Stephanie Fiorelli, the postsecondary success manager at Urban Assembly, which supports 21 small public schools in New York City. She said many students who graduated from Urban Assembly schools are working between 15 and 20 hours a week on top of attending school. They have family obligations, run into problems paying for transportation, and struggle with a myriad of obstacles out of their control.

“These kids want to be in school full-time.” she said. “It’s not feasible at all.”

Other complications could play into students’ ability to reach the 30-credit requirement. Natan Nassir, a sophomore at Binghamton University, started his year with the state’s Excelsior scholarship, but ran into trouble when he decided to switch majors.

For his new major, he was encouraged, but not technically required, to take a computer science course. However, since he does not need that class in order to graduate, it does not count towards his 30 required credits, he said. (State officials said that all credits must count towards a student graduating and getting a degree.)

He will be one class shy of what he needs (even though he is taking a full course load) and he plans to attend summer school to make up the extra class.

“I was very surprised, honestly, when she told me about this requirement,” Nassir said, “I had no idea that it existed. I kind of thought, ‘Well now what?’”