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Graduation Rates Up, Dropout Rates Down in NYC High Schools — But Is It All Good News?

Graduation Rates Up, Dropout Rates Down in NYC High Schools — But Is It All Good News?
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Kathryn deBros February 11, 2016

While graduation rates are rising and dropout rates are falling, rates of college readiness have room for improvement. Learn what to make of new data released by the NYC Department of Education.

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Strange things are happening in New York City.

Graduation rates among high school students are rising, and dropout rates are falling (slowly but surely). All of this is transpiring while the state is pioneering new ideas in implementing Common Core curricula and raising standards for earning high school diplomas.

So, it appears that it’s getting harder to graduate — but that more kids are graduating, too. What is going on in New York City public schools? Let’s take a closer look at the data.

In January, the NYC Department of Education released this report{: target="_blank" rel="nofollow" }, which shows steadily increasing graduation rates across the city, numbers that exceeded 70 percent for the class of 2015. The dropout rate has slumped to 9 percent, which is less than half of the 22 percent rate in 2005.

Meanwhile, graduation requirements are getting more complicated.

Statewide, high school students must pass five Regents exams in basic subject areas. The tests must include math, English, science, and social studies (there are actually two social studies tests, though students can swap one out for a foreign language or vocational test). In the past few years, New York has been phasing out the local diploma option, which required students to pass only three of these five tests, in favor of the other two options: a Regents diploma and an Advanced Regents diploma, which require passing five and nine exams, respectively. The Department of Education has also raised the score necessary for passing Regents exams from 55 to 65. Additionally, the new generation of state tests has incorporated the Common Core standards, which demand higher-order thinking skills from students; these have more extended-response (and fewer multiple-choice) questions.

But there’s a “but." Knowing that the switch to a Common Core–based test would prove challenging for students, New York adjusted the scoring curve to maintain the same 74 percent passage rate as the previous year. This means that even though the test itself is more difficult, students don’t need to get as many questions correct to pass.

On the then-new algebra test in 2014, students only needed to score 30 out of a possible 84 points in order to pass. This rescaling is meant to be temporary, of course; the Regents Board and policymakers expect scores to increase each year that students take Common Core–aligned classes. In 2022, testmakers expect students to earn 66 out of a possible 86 points in order to pass, a bar only 22 percent of students cleared in 2014.

As it stands now, unless something really radical is happening day-to-day in the classroom, New York may be looking at decreasing graduation rates in the years to come. The reason for this is that the curve the Regents Board currently uses will become less and less generous year after year. But there may still exist a gap between what the board expects students to learn and what they’ll actually learn. This means that students may continue to struggle to meet ever-more-stringent standards as the grading curve becomes more difficult to satisfy.

On a policy level, the Regents Board is working to implement radical solutions. For example, board members recently approved <a href="{: target="_blank" }, including rigorous pathways to graduation in career and technical education (CTE), humanities, languages other than English (LOTE), and [STEM](" target="_blank">multiple graduation options. The idea underlying this change is that increased specialization will prepare greater numbers of students for success in the job market after high school. A current proposal would also allow students to demonstrate proficiency with project-based assessments, which may be a possibility in the future.

Additionally, New York offers several “Commencement Credentials may earn in lieu of a traditional diploma.

While the city is working to meet the needs of the high school cohort as a whole, it’s worth noting that — as these new figures reflect — the achievement gap stubbornly persists. The graduation rate for white students in 2015 was 82 percent, compared with 65.4 percent and 64 percent for black and Latin@ students, respectively. This 18 percentage-point gap has remained consistent since 2009, when 75 percent of white students and 56 percent of black students graduated by August of their fourth year. While a great deal of work needs to be done to close the achievement gap, graduation rates for all students are on the rise.

In what seems like more good news, dropout rates have fallen across the board. In 2005, 27 percent of Latin@ students left school early, compared with 11.9 percent in 2015. Other ethnic groups saw similar changes over the last decade: the rate of black students who withdrew went from 22.8 percent to 9.3 percent, Asian students from 13.1 percent to 4.6 percent, and white students from 17.1 percent to 5.2 percent.

Although it’s tempting to think that perhaps a greater range of academic options available to high school students is keeping them in school, the consistency of these statistics across all ethnic groups speaks more to a change in administrative standards for graduation than it does to day-to-day changes like increased course offerings.

Taking a step back from all the data, everything sounds positive and promising. More students are staying in school and earning diplomas. But it’s also worth noting that the rate of graduating students deemed ready for college sits just under 35 percent (students are considered college-ready if they can take intro-level math and English courses at the City University of New York without needing remedial classes). This is up slightly from 31.4 percent in 2013 and 32.6 percent in 2014 — and up quite a lot from 16 percent in 2005.

Over the next few years, as New York City schools aim to close the gap between rates of graduation and college-readiness with higher testing standards, multiple pathways to the workforce, and a variety of academic programming options, we may see some dramatic changes — for better or worse. As the so-called “<a href="," New York serves as a high-profile model for the rest of the country as it works to define meaningful academic engagement as well as realistic options for a variety of student needs. Under the canary in the Common Core mine (ESSA" target="_blank">Every Student Succeeds Act, which gives curriculum-setting power back to the states, New York's trailblazing efforts are even more apt to influence how other states establish and enforce academic standards.

Interested in learning more about how schools in your area use the Common Core? Check out the comprehensive Noodle K–12 school search tool to explore all of your choices — and to find the perfect fit for your family.

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