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A Deeper Dive Into Graduation Rates

Graduation rates went up last year.  Which is good. It is.

But when the State Education Dept. announced the 2010 grad rates on June 14, it put out a combined 139-slide PowerPoint presentation. There is a lot more than one sentence to say about the latest round of education data.

Here are 10 observations on New York’s data, just from perusing those slides:

1. A genuine uptrend….. New York City graduated 61% of its 2006 incoming ninth graders (Class of 2010) on time in June of 2010, a gain of almost 15 percentage points over the last five years. Before that, the city’s graduation rate was stuck at about 50 percent (using an older measure) for decades. There is a really significant uptrend here.

2. …..Or not? Whether this is genuine improvement or the result of a constricted focus on test-passing, heavy use of credit recovery schemes and/or easier Regents tests becomes is an urgent question. The state’s new “Aspirational Performance Measure” of college-readiness, discussed below, suggests that most students are graduating unprepared. On the other hand, we all know highly accomplished graduates and the teachers who worked their hearts out to help them. The answer may be a tale of two cities.

3. Where is the dropout rate? One observation on data that isn’t here: the city’s 2010 dropout rate. Statewide, the dropout rate was 9.1% for the Class of 2010, with 14.1% still enrolled. We have the dropout rates for Buffalo, Rochester, Yonkers and Syracuse, and for each and every ethnic group as well. We have NYC’s 2009 rate (11.8%). So where  is New York City’s 2010 rate??

4. Longer term success is real. The city graduated another four percent of the Class of 2010—3,200 more students—by August. More than anywhere else in the state, more than the other large cities, the rural schools and the suburbs, the city keeps turning out graduates after June.

This applies even more so to NYC’s five-year graduation rate.  The city’s five-year rate is typically almost 10 points over its four-yr rate (a little less this year), compared to about six extra points statewide. By their fifth year, 67.8% of the New York City cohort of 2005 (Class of 2009) had graduated. Its six-year rate added 13 points to the tally in the most recent available year, more than any other big city.

So many city high school students must learn English, work, or care for family members that it seems arbitrary to declare success only when they graduate in a strict four-year time frame.

The fifth year is especially advantageous to English language learners, adding another 13 points to their graduation rates statewide. (New York City didn’t break down five-year rates by subgroups).  Statewide, students with disabilities add eight points when they get a fifth year to graduate, and Black and Latino students add 10 points. (However, five- and six-year graduation rates typically show a lot more local diplomas over Regents-endorsed ones, and there will be no more local diplomas starting with the Class of 2012.)

5.  Subgroup comparisons made needlessly difficult. The city’s own 26-slide PowerPoint makes comparisons difficult by using August graduation rates for all sorts of subgroups, while the state convention is to use June rates. Since the city insists on comparing itself favorably to the rest of the state in every imaginable way, the lack of apples to apples data is frustrating. The city also calculates gains in percentages rather than points in many instances, which always looks better but can obscure the actual data. For example, it shows the city graduation rate going up 40 percent over five years, when by the more standard calculation it went up 19 percentage points.

6. Students with disabilities still fare poorly in NYC. The city says 30.7% of students with disabilities in its Class of 2010 graduated by August. That is well below the state’s June SWD graduation rate of 44.1%.

Statewide, the graduation rate gap between students with disabilities and all students is not as wide as in NYC. The gap was 29 points for the state but 33 points for the city. However, the city is slowly doing better. Three years ago there was a 35-point gap between city students with disabilities and the all-student average. This year, for the first time, the state graduated more than half (50.4%) of its students with disabilities after five years, a symbolic but still noteworthy achievement.

7. English language learners fare better . New York City, hub of immigrant aspiration, does better by students who are learning English as their second (or third) language. The city shows 46.1% of English language learners graduating by August, vs. the state’s June rate of 40.3%. The ELL graduation rate has doubled from the Class of 2006 and more are earning Regents diplomas—28 percent of the graduates this year.

The city educates about one third of the students in the state but it has 80% of the ELLs, so the state numbers generalize pretty readily to the city. In the state, the five- and six-year graduation rates for ELLs both rose over 50% for the first time last year. Statewide, ELLs narrowed their graduation-rate gap with the all students to 31 points, down from 38 for the Class of 2006.

8. NYC’s racial achievement gaps are double the other cities. The racial achievement gaps in the city were fractionally smaller for the Class of 2010. Black students narrowed the by-June graduation gap to 19.6 points in 2010 from 20.1 in 2008. Hispanics narrowed a 21.8-pt gap in 2008 to 21.6 by 2010. The city’s Black and Hispanic students also made notable gains in their rates of Regents-endorsed diplomas. But the black-white and Hispanic-white gaps in the state’s other four large cities are considerably smaller. The latest “Big Four” graduation rate gap between blacks and whites was 11.5 and the Hispanic-white gap was just 9 points, half the size of the city’s gaps.

9. Charter school graduation and APM rates are lower. The state charter school graduation rate was lower than the regular public schools in the city and statewide, at 56% for the Class of 2010. That was up from 47.2% the year before and an abysmal 13.1% for the charter Class of 2006. There were 1,000 students total in the most recent class, so this is still a small group. But charter student performance on the state’s new college-ready indicator was very weak at 9.5%, compared with 36.7% for public school students statewide (and 21.4% for the city).

10. College Ready is not a pretty picture. A big 21.4% of city graduates are college ready? What does that say about the 61% graduation rate?

This new college-ready measure, formally the Aspirational Performance Measure, keeps track of students who graduate with at least a 75 on the English Regents and an 80 on the Math. Recent research by the Board of Regents found those scores generally get students out of CUNY remedial classes and give them a good shot at scoring C or better in first-year English and math college classes.

Like the rescoring of the Grade 3-8 ELA and math tests last summer, this recalibration of graduation rates to indicate college readiness is a big shock to the school system. But it reflects the reality that about half of city high school graduates need remediation when they enter CUNY (more like three-quarters in the two-year CUNYs). In fact, real college readiness skills — writing persuasive essays, doing independent research, problem solving, etc. — are not measured at all on the current Regents. This new measure shows that the majority of students who graduate in four years in NYC are passing, or being passed, without all the skills and knowledge they need to make it out there. That is a huge problem. It won’t even be solved by improving Regents test scores, unless the tests get a whole lot better. But all this is a subject for further posts.