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Campaign for Fiscal Equity

Tue, Sep 21, 2010


Students in High Schools That Enrolled Lowest-Achieving Ninth-Graders Missed 27 More School Days on Average than Students in High Schools that Enrolled Highest-Achieving Ninth-Graders

Admission Policies Increased Academic and Demographic Imbalances Among Schools

NEW YORK, September 21, 2010—The Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) today released a report, Diploma Dilemma: Rising Standards, the Regents Diploma, and Schools that Beat the Odds, finding that New York City high schools vary dramatically in their ability to help similar students graduate, particularly with Regents diplomas. CFE used state and city data to divide the city’s high schools into four peer groups based on the eighth-grade English language arts and mathematics state test scores of incoming ninth-graders in 2004. In schools that enrolled students with the lowest scores, the on-time graduation rate ranged from 34.2 percent to 90.1 percent; the rate of students in these schools earning Regents Diplomas, which signify adequate preparation for college or the workplace, ranged from zero to 83.3 percent. Among all students first entering ninth grade in 2004, 60.6 graduated on time in 2008 while only 42.6 percent earned a Regents diploma.

The report also found that the city’s high schools differed radically in the extent to which they enrolled students who were less likely to graduate: those with poor eighth-grade reading and math skills or low attendance, as well as overage students, English language learners, and students with disabilities. Some schools enrolled large percentages of students with academic challenges, sometimes large majorities; others had none. The report notes that thirty schools enrolling less than 10 percent of first-time ninth-graders in 2004 attracted more than half of those scoring at Level 4 on state tests.

Additionally, the report found that eighth-grade attendance predicted graduation more strongly than any other variable, and that attendance continued to have a powerful affect on outcomes through high school: in schools whose students entered with the lowest academic achievement, students on average attended 27 fewer days than those in schools whose students entered with the highest achievement.

CFE plans to follow Diploma Dilemma with a report describing the instructional and programmatic strategies used by schools that were shown to be highly successful with students who were low-performing when they entered as ninth-graders.

“We fought and won to uphold every student’s constitutional right to a sound, basic education, not so that the large majority of disadvantaged students in New York City would finish school with a meaningless local diploma or nothing at all,” said Geri Palast, Executive Director of CFE. “Graduation standards are rising. The state will transition to Regents diploma standards entirely in 2012, and the Board of Regents appears likely to raise the current Regents standards. Our report calls for an intensive concentration of resources on pre-high school remediation and on policy reform to reduce absenteeism and provide better school opportunities to students with academic challenges. Absent meaningful change, it’s conceivable that within a few years New York City will have a school system in which the majority of students—and the overwhelming number of those who are disadvantaged—have not just poor test scores but no high school diploma and reduced life prospects.”

“Diploma Dilemma demonstrates that it matters where we put our resources,” said Helaine Doran, Deputy Director at CFE. “New York City high schools are largely failing to help students who start with any disadvantage. We need to invest in these students, in instituting policies and programs that work in the schools that prepare them for high school, and in giving them greater equity of opportunity in choosing a high school—by changing admissions policies or expanding models, like Educational Option schools, that are designed to educate both high- and low-performing students. And we need to focus on the schools that are already succeeding with these students. CFE will follow Diploma Dilemma with a report describing the programs, strategies, and practices that these schools use and that can be implemented at scale.”

As part of its analysis, Diploma Dilemma examined the way selection criteria, location, and zoning affected school demographic and academic profiles; these played an important role in concentrating low-achieving students in schools with few high-achieving students. Thirty schools—seven exam schools and 23 screened schools—together enrolled 50 percent of all incoming Level 4 students, even though those schools enrolled only 10 percent of the cohort. Because of the persistent relationship between achievement and demographic characteristics, these screening mechanisms also contributed to segregation by ethnicity and income. Less than 21 percent of students enrolled in schools with an entry exam were black and Hispanic, although black and Hispanic students made up almost 70 percent of the student population.

The report found that these effects—a “hierarchy of schools”—were intensified by zoning and location. Zoned programs enrolled students similar in ethnicity and income. The location of schools influenced their composition even when they weren’t zoned: a disproportionate number of high schools with the largest percentages of low-performing students were located in districts where the smallest percentage of eighth-graders met proficiency standards. Similarly, high schools whose students faced the fewest challenges were disproportionately located in districts where the largest percentages of eighth-graders met proficiency standards.

“This report drives home the enormity of the task before us as New York raises the bar for a high school diploma,” said Kim Sweet, Executive Director of Advocates for Children. “It is encouraging to see that some schools manage to defy the odds and achieve success with students that are often assumed to be destined for failure. CFE should be commended for continuing to fight for the neediest children in our schools.”

“CFE’s report highlights the disturbing fact that, as of 2008, only 42.6 percent of entering ninth-graders earned a Regents diploma. Now, however, the State has eliminated the local diploma, requiring that all students must earn a Regents diploma,” said Robert Jackson, City Council Education Committee Chairman. “We’re facing a huge educational crisis—with fewer than half our high school students prepared to meet the higher graduation standard and fewer resources to help them succeed in tight budget times when schools have had to absorb painful budget cuts. In fact, graduation standards are expected to get even tougher as the State will revamp Regents exams starting this year.”

"The differences among high schools are remarkable—and the inequities are tragic and glaring. This research is important for those who are trying to figure out why some schools work and others don't. The Department of Education needs to make the ‘severely-challenged’ high schools an absolute top priority. Otherwise, a lot of students will be lost the years to come,” said Kim Nauer, Education Project Director at Center for New York City Affairs. “We also see the importance of student attendance, particularly in middle school. Students who miss too much school simply aren't prepared for high school—and many fail to graduate. The study’s findings confirm the growing sense among educators and researchers that combating absenteeism is critical to the mission of school reform.”

CFE issued three recommendations in Diploma Dilemma:

1. Accountability systems need to be revised to increase the value of attendance in assessing school progress.
2. New York City should expand Educational Option schools with unique academic programs that are sufficiently strong to attract high-performing students yet are committed to enrolling challenging students.
3. Elementary and middle schools serving the largest percentages of disadvantaged students should receive a greater share of funds provided under the Contract for Excellence.

Diploma Dilemma analyzed school-level data for students in 281 high schools that admit first-time ninth-graders in the fall 2004 and in 31 transfer schools. Twenty-three schools that closed or were scheduled to close, or that had insufficiently large cohorts, were not included in the study.

Parents from across the state march on the Capitol in Albany to show support for CFE.
CFE Litigation CFE v. State of New York
In 2006, after 13 years in the Courts, the New York State Court of Appeals affirmed the right of every public school student in New York to the opportunity for a sound basic education and the state’s responsibility to adequately fund this right, but deferred to the Governor and the Legislature to determine the appropriate amount. more >