Here’s the newest piece by award-winning Principal Carol Burris of South Side High School in New York, who has been chronicling her state’s controversial new educator evaluation for more than a year on this blog. (See here and here and here, for example.) Burris was named New York’s 2013 High School Principal of the Year by the School Administrators Association of New York and the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and in 2010,  tapped as the 2010 New York State Outstanding Educator by the School Administrators Association of New York State. She is the co-author of the New York Principals letter of concern regarding the evaluation of teachers by student test scores. It has been signed by more than 1,535 New York principals and more than 6,500 teachers, parents, professors, administrators and citizens. You can read the letter by clicking here. 

By Carol Burris

In a press release on June 17, New York State Chancellor Merryl Tisch and Commissioner John King took a bow on the New York State graduation rate. Their chosen headline was: New York State Graduation Rate Stays at 74% Despite Higher Graduation Standards.

The press release proclaimed this: “King said today’s announcement shows the hard work of educators, parents, and students across the state proved the opponents of higher standards wrong.” And from Ms. Tisch: “Despite all the naysayers, raising standards was the right thing to do.”

Before the self-serving victory lap is complete, I hope they and others take a closer look at the details of the graduation rate data. Below, I examine changes in that rate for different groups of students. As is the case with the superficial data cited by King and Tisch, one cannot make causal claims about the effects of the 2012 higher standards on graduation rates. But the disaggregated data does raise some red flags.

What stands out most is the disappointing, but unsurprising, finding that for many groups, graduation rates went down. The achievement gap in the New York State graduation rate increased—by race, ELL status and poverty. And the gap between low-needs and high-needs schools widened as well. Those who lost ground were, in most cases, those who could least afford to fall further behind. To the extent that we believe the graduation trends were caused by the change in standards, this was not a reform without costs to New York’s most vulnerable students.

Readers can find the Power Point slides that the commissioner presented to the Board of Regents here. If you look carefully at the “additional slides,” you will see that the four-year graduation rate dropped in 2012 for the following groups:

  • Black students
  • Hispanic students
  • American Indian students
  • Asian American students
  • ELL students
  • Students in New York’s cities

Some of the drops were small, but others were not. The graduation rate for English Language learners dropped 4 percentage points from an already awful 38% to 34%.  The city of Buffalo’s graduation rate dropped by over 7 percentage points.

These losses were offset by increases in the graduation rate for white students and districts with less need across the state. The rate for special education students stayed essentially the same, moving from 44.6% to 44.7%. Special education students, however, are exempt from the “higher standard” of having to pass the five Regents with a score of 65. Given that only 26% of special ed students met that higher standard, their rate would have plummeted if this was not the case.

The four-year graduation rate for economically disadvantaged students dropped from 64% to 63%, representing nearly 1,000 New York students. Oddly, this category of students was not included in John King’s deck of graduation PowerPoint slides. Although the SED readily shares graduation statistics (and accountability) for this group by district, they do not share low-SES student aggregate graduation rates in their press releases or presentations. I have always found that curious. In any case, using the Excel sheet that provides all state data (which you can find here at the bottom of the page), I computed the graduation rates by SES. Readers can find the 2011 data for comparison here.

Repeating the pattern of losers and winners, the students who were not disadvantaged gained. Their graduation rate increased from just shy of 81% to 82%.

Although one might expect small fluctuations from year to year, students who had the lowest rates to begin with were generally the ones who lost ground.

I can hear the outraged cry from reformers, “Poverty is not destiny!” I wholeheartedly agree with that basic assertion—provided that you compensate for poverty’s effects with additional resources. In fact, the proof that poverty is not destiny can be found in the New York State Excel spreadsheet itself.  New York classifies its districts by needs, sorting them into categories using an index that represents the relationship between the neediness of a district’s students and its financial resources. That index is called the need/resource capacity index.

In the table below, I show the 2012 four-year graduation rates for economically disadvantaged students based on the need/resource capacity index category. I computed all of the rates from the state’s Excel sheet.

District Need Category Graduation Rate of Economically  Disadvantaged Students
Low Needs Districts 85.1%
Average Needs Districts 74.4%
High Needs Districts (rural and small city) 61.6%
High Needs: Big City 50.1%
High Needs: NYC 59.8%

The above shows just how well low-SES students can do if they are in well–resourced schools that are not overwhelmed by poverty.  Economically disadvantaged students in New York’s low-needs schools have a graduation rate that exceeds their non-disadvantaged peers across the state. Even in schools with average needs, poor students exceed the state graduation average. Poverty becomes destiny only when society fails to address the effects of concentrated poverty.

There are very important issues that must be considered when one reflects on the claims made by Tisch and King.  Former Commissioner Rick Mills, who served from 1995-2009, started the movement towards a Regents Diploma for all in the late 1990s. It was a carefully phased-in reform. What will happen to the gap when the Common Core standards, far higher than these, are abruptly put in place? I think the above analysis provides a clue. These are not reforms without cost, and raising standards quickly will, I predict, result in a wider gap. The negative consequences will be felt by our most vulnerable students, such as New York’s English Language Learners, whose dropout rate this year was a whopping 21%.

Second, and more importantly, we need to ask whether we are using the right levers to improve student performance. This should not be about proving “naysayers” wrong—this is about spending our taxpayer dollars and our efforts on the most effective strategies. The above table shows us the path that we must follow if we truly want to make a difference. We must make sure that the kinds of resources, supports and opportunities that economically disadvantaged students get in low-needs schools, are available in all schools, even as we reduce racial and socio-economic isolation through neighborhood and school integration. The model to follow is not the miracle charter—it is the low- and average-need public schools that are getting the job done.

We can continue to spend a fortune on fancy data systems, teacher evaluation by test scores, and increasingly more difficult tests.  But every time a tax dollar or a school day is spent on ineffective reforms, it is an opportunity lost. Sometimes the answer is right in the low-tech Excel sheet. Unfortunately, it is not the answer that New York Reformers want to see.

 Correction: Merryl Tisch’s name was misspelled in an earlier version.