When the New York State Education Department began the phase-in of stricter new graduation standards, educators feared that an increasing number of students would drop out of schools before they graduated.
In recent months, evidence has emerged that this nightmare is coming true â€“ and that it is even worse than expected: some schools may be deliberately driving them out.
In the late 1990’s, the state began requiring that all students in New York pass five rigorous Regents exams in order to receive a high school diploma. At that time, fewer than one in five New York City students met that requirement. Since then, new state and federal accountability policies have further ratcheted up the pressure on students, educators, and school officials by adding penalties for schools and districts whose students do not pass these and other required tests at acceptable rates.
Dropout numbers have been gradually edging up since the new graduation standards were implemented. But there is another disturbing trend, according to a recent New York Times investigation, as well as a studyreleased last winter. Drop-out rates may dramatically underestimate the number of New York City high school who leave the public schools without graduating.
According to these reports, New York City Department of Education data show tens of thousands of students who leave the high schools categorized as "discharged." This category includes students who transfer to other schools or school systems or who go to private schools; it also includes students who move from regular high school programs into alternative programs -- programs that lead a General Educational Development diploma (GED) rather than to the much more marketable regular high school diploma.
The reports allege that many low achieving high school students, unaware of their legal right to stay in a regular high school until they are 21 years old, are being counseled or forced into high school equivalency programs. More and younger students than ever are being encouraged to join these programs, though the GED is a less valuable degree than the regular high school diploma, and though most of the students who leave high school with the intention of enrolling in one of these programs either never join or never receive the certificate.
Students who do not complete these alternative programs may not be counted as dropouts in Department of Education statistics. Advocates believe that the official dropout rate of 20 percent would climb to 25 or 30 percent if these students' outcomes were included.
Chancellor Joel Klein has acknowledged this "tragedy" and the need to create more programs for students who need more time to graduate. The Times quoted Klein as saying, "The goal is for students to graduate in four years, but we've got to stop giving the signal that we're giving up on students who don't do that."
Now that the Department of Education has acknowledged the problem, advocates recommend specific steps to remedy it, including analyzing discharged students data to learn more about the students affected and creating state and city policies explicitly discouraging the practice of pushing out at-risk students. Advocates for Children of New York has also filed suit against the Department of Education charging that Franklin K. Lane High School in Brooklyn illegally discharged hundreds of students over the past three years.
New High School Bill Introduced in the U.S. Senate
The No Child Left Behind Act may add to the Department of Education's pressure to shunt aside low performing high schoolers. Under the federal education law, high schools receive "credit" only for students who graduate on time with a regular diploma. Schools thus get no incentive to keep students in school for a fifth or sixth year in order to help them graduate, though, in New York City, an additional 10 percent of students are able to graduate after a fifth year.
New York City is not alone in its need to address these problems. Democratic Senator Patty Murray of Washington recently introduced new legislation to help reform the nation's secondary schools, citing a need to reach older students largely left out of No Child Left Behind. The Pathways for All Children to Succeed (PASS) Act seeks to provide extra support for high school students through a focus on adolescent literacy, counseling, and a grant program to improve student achievement in low-performing high schools.
Jessica Wolff is a public school parent and Director of Policy Development at the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, a not-for-profit coalition working to reform New York State's education finance system to ensure adequate resources and the opportunity for a sound basic education for all students in New York City. The views expressed are her own.