Graduation Games
March 20th, 2007

In a more perfect world, no school system would think that having 42 percent of students drop out of high school is something to brag about. But no one ever said the New York City school system is perfect.

For a while, the city and state have been fighting over how many city public school students  receive a high school diploma. The state says only 43 percent do. The city Department of Education says 58 percent do and points to this an achievement of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s school changes.

Now Public School Parents says sources report that the city has won the battle – which is over numbers, not improving education – “and the state will soon report graduation rates for NYC that are above 50 percent.” But according to the Sun, the state is only willing to go so far: A spokesman for the state Education Department, “said the state would not ‘negotiate the definition for the graduation rate,” although it would make some changes, such as letting kids who graduate in August be included with June graduates.

The other issues could prove dicier. The city includes people who get a GED degree; the state, like the federal government, does not. “The benefit of earning a GED, according to national research, is just a slight improvement over dropping out,” Daniel J. Losen of Harvard Law School’s Civil Rights Project has written. “There is a tremendous difference between earning a GED and earning a bona fide high school diploma.”

But the biggest rift may be over special education. The city thinks kids in special ed should not be included in computing the dropout rate; the state says they should. Given that less than one in five special education students in the city graduates, this has a big effect on the number. Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott has defended the city’s exclusion of special education kids, telling the Politicker, “Those are students who have severe issues and so the ability to obtain a degree in a four-year period of time for them and qualify for regents tests is really extremely difficult.”

Sound reasonable? Not according to some experts. First the city does far worse on this than the state as a whole. Only 37 percent of all special education high school students in the state graduate, but less than 17 percent of those in the city do.

And while the term “special education” may summon images of students with severe mental retardation or autism, most special education students have “emotional and behavioral” problems, according to Thomas Hehir, a professor of education at Harvard who reviewed city special ed programs. “”If [students] receive what they need and the school accommodates their disabilities and gives them access to challenging curricula, these kids should be able to get diplomas,” he has said.

However one adds up the numbers, the rates remain particularly dismal for black and Latino students – less than half of whom graduate.  That’s the big issue, of course. And so Public School Parents writes, “Why graduation rates should be a matter of negotiation at all rather than a result of careful objective analysis is something of a scandal in itself.”

By on March 20, 2007, 11:43 am
In category: Education,Gotham City | 7 Comments »

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7 Responses to “Graduation Games”

  1. Daniel Millstone Says:
    March 20th, 2007 at 1:19 pm

    Thanks for writing so clearly about this very tricky subject.

  2. Larry Littlefield Says:
    March 20th, 2007 at 2:20 pm

    Shouldn’t the graduation rate change by a similar amount regardless of the definition?

    This is truly a fight over PR, that could be settled by a table showing graduation rates for (and with and without) different populations, and at different graduation points (four-year, more than four year, GED).

  3. Patrick Sullivan Says:
    March 20th, 2007 at 4:45 pm

    You might add the US DoE viewpoint which places our grad rate much lower. Otherwise, no surprise that Bloomberg will win stack the deck and win the PR game. Let’s see if the papers are brave enough to call him on it.

  4. Dee Alpert Says:
    March 20th, 2007 at 5:57 pm

    The NYC DOE’s manipulations of graduation/dropout rates are matched by those routinely played by State Ed. (NYSED), so it is hardly surprising that these two entities should have come to a “compromise” which only serves to compromise children’s best interests.

    The last public data from NYSED (to the USDOE) shows that a full 58% of all students classified as having disabilities (mild, moderate or severe) who were of high school age (i.e., 14-21) stopped attending school in NYS and were reported in the “moved, known to continue” category. However, NYSED has consistently rejected NYS Comptroller audit recommendations that it verify districts’ reports of enrollment and attendance, so nobody knows how many students are really attending school in NYS at all, much less how many have actually dropped out. Then NYSED has refused, consistently, to verify or audit any district’s reports of school student leavers, and especially has never looked at the validity of any district’s reports that kids moved and re-enrolled elsewhere. Finally, NYSED has consistently refused to publish any data whatsoever about its students who have what we call “disability lite,” i.e., kids in regular schools and classes who may get a few sessions of resource room or speech therapy a week, and who, by all objective evaluations, should be doing grade level work given the extra supports they receive.

    While the NYC DOE’s data re kids with moderate and severe disabilities, i.e., those in the infamous District 75 and also those in district/regionally operated self-contained special ed. classes are nothing short of horrendous, there is much reason to believe that the data for the “disability lite” kids is much, much worse – except that nobody can get the data necessary to tell what this situation really is.

    The problem of, and responsiblity for, withheld and flagrantlyl manipulated data starts, however, at the top, with NYSED’s Commissioner Richard Mills. The first time that NYSED collected data for all NYS high school students, using its unique student identifier system and vastly expensive data “warehouses,” NYSED announced that perhaps as much as 20% of the first “Class” of students reported with the sophisticated IT system were reported as enrolled and attending schools in two separate districts at the same time. NYSED reported that it had “assumed” this was a clerical error! What an assumption. Then data which had to be pulled out of USDOE in a manner very much resembling pulling teeth in the 1700’s showed that 58% of all kids w/disabilities of high school age had been reported in the “moved, known to continue” category, but there is no documentation showing that NYSED verified these numbers by using its unique student identifier and data warehouse systems to see if the “movers” had actually re-enrolled elsewhere in NYS.

    The best you can say for NYS and NYC DOE graduation and dropout data, especially for kids with any severity of disability, is that these numbers are so “massaged,” (to use one NYS Comptroller audit term) as to be in a shape which resembles nothing other than clouds, floating by in the sky, after having ingested or inhaled a certain substance which is illegal and possession of small amounts of which in the State of NY get the smoker a summons.

    One colleague, a nationally-respected education demographer and testing expert, says repeatedly that NYSED’s data is dirtier than that from Texas. Texas’ graduation/dropout numbers, of course, were so flagrantly … massaged … that the federal government at one point totally refused to accept them and published asterisks instead of numbers for all Texas reports.

    NYSED’s numbers, and the districts’ numbers which NYSED aggregates into its statewide figures, are so bad that they do not even warrant asterisks. Exclamation points, apostrophes, and the occasional “Ugh! Feh!” would be more appropriate.

    The data validity and reliability situation both in terms of NYSED and also the NYC DOE are so bad that they’re just plain scandalous. Before we can argue about just how bad NYC’s graduation and dropout numbers really are, we need a plain old-fashioned audit of its enrollment and attendance numbers for kids classified as having mild, moderate and severe disabilities. And then compare these to the numbers of “mandated” test scores reported for each of these groups. Last I saw, the NYC DOE’s “not tested” figures for kids with disabilities were over 50% for each “mandated” high school exam. NYSED’s numbers were … only a little better.

    Scandal. Disgrace. Disservice to the kids. But plenty of money served up to the adults who plan and provde the services which are supposed to help these kids overcome their disabilities.

    Dee Alpert, Publisher
    The Special Education Muckraker

  5. Tom Says:
    March 20th, 2007 at 6:12 pm

    Let’s see if the local media picks this up and points out this scandal to the public.

    It’s time for an investigation by the feds and the AG and or governor. It’s also time for Mills and many, if not all of the regents to move on!

    I repeat, edweek’s data and methodology are considered reliable and they have the NYC grad rate pegged at 39%.

    Kudos to Gothan Gazette and Azi from Politicker for coming out on these very important public issues.

  6. larry littlefield Says:
    March 20th, 2007 at 9:03 pm

    It sounds bad.

    Humorous sidenote. The American Community Survey showed the percent of NYC residents with high school and college educations has risen sharply. That, of course, has more to do with who moves in and moves out than it does with the city’s schools. But the newspapers didn’t get this, and actually got some PR person at the DOE, who didn’t get this either, to take credit.

    Census Bureau data doesn’t allow you to find out about the situation of those who went to school in different places. But I’d love to see Public Use Microdata Sample crosstab of the educational, occupational and income characteristics, by age (and thus when in school), of those born in NYC (using a national file) and elsewhere, those born in NYC and in NYC, those born in the rest of the U.S. and in NYC, and those born abroad and in NYC. Let’s see, in a long run sense, what it has been like to grow up here since, say, 1975.

  7. Leonie Haimson Says:
    March 21st, 2007 at 1:18 pm

    This is a good introduction to the issue — but leaves out the biggest difference between the way NYC continues to inflate its graduation rate compared to the more accurate estimates used by all other independent agencies.

    The DOE allows all those students who are “discharged” or transferred to GED and alternative programs to be excluded from being counted as dropouts — even though few if any of these students graduate with a regular HS degree.

    And while there were about 6,000 special ed students excluded last year from the city’s count, there were more than 16,000 discharged students whose existence was pretty much erased off the rolls. And as the City Comptroller and others have pointed out, the number of discharged students keep rising.

    The new so-called accountability system by which principals and schools will be graded from A to F, primarily on the basis of student test scores — and which principals’ jobs will depend upon –will also exclude all students who are discharged, transferred, suspended or otherwise ejected from one’s school from showing up anywhere in the school’s evaluation.

    Which mean that the incentive will grow even stronger in the future for principals to try to push out and rid themselves of low-performing students any way they can.

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