New York State School Boards Association

'Generally positive' trend seen in grad rates

by Cathy Woodruff

On Board Online • February 19, 2018

By Cathy Woodruff
Senior Writer

New York's four-year graduation rate continued a trend of gradual improvement in 2017, rising to 80.2 percent in time for June commencement ceremonies. The 2017 rate improved by nearly two more percentage points when students who received their diplomas in August are included.

The rates were calculated for 207,165 students who entered ninth grade in 2013. The June 2017 graduation rate was up half a percentage point from a year before, when the state posted a rate of 79.7 percent (after some data was corrected) for students who entered high school in 2012.

Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia characterized the results as "generally positive." She highlighted bright spots that included Yonkers. The district's rate of 82.8 percent exceeded the statewide rate by 2.6 percentage points and became the first Big 5 city district to boost its rate above 80 percent.

Yonkers school leaders have employed several strategies that they say have helped, but Elia noted the district's participation in My Brother's Keeper (MBK). The initiative launched by President Barack Obama in 2014 challenges localities to improve outcomes for young men and boys of color. New York became the first state to accept the MBK challenge in 2016.

"Yonkers is one of our most, if not our most, active My Brother's Keeper districts," Elia told reporters in a conference call. "Clearly, looking at Yonkers' numbers, they're making a difference."

But Elia also carried on an annual tradition of cautioning that "troubling gaps" persist, particularly between graduation rates for students who are white and for students who are black or Hispanic and between students who go to school in more affluent communities and those who go to school in communities that struggle to fund educational programs.

She said that identifying those gaps helps to confirm the priorities that are set out in New York's federal accountability plan under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

"With its focus on equity," Elia said, "the state's newly approved ESSA plan will help drive the changes we need to ensure all children have the same opportunities for success."

Elia said the data reinforce the belief that giving students more time to finish high school yields more graduates. For the high school freshmen of 2011, the four-year "on time" graduation rate was 78.1 percent in 2015. That rate improved to 83.5 percent when students remained in school for a fifth year and 84.9 percent when they remained for a sixth year.

For students who were freshmen in 2012, the five-year graduation rate was 84.5 percent last year, up nearly 5 points from a four-year rate of 79.7 percent.

Below are other noteworthy trends and developments in key areas.

The Big 5

Overall improvement in the grad rates for students in the Big 5 cities exceeded that for the state. The gains were strongest in Yonkers and in Rochester, where the rate jumped by more than four points to 51.9 percent. But even with that improvement, Rochester's rate remained the lowest among those cities and far below the statewide rate. The rate in Syracuse, 60.5 percent, was actually a slight decline from the year before.

English language learners

The trends are mixed for students learning to speak English. Their four-year graduation rate dropped for a second consecutive year, landing at just 26.6 percent. Meanwhile, the grad rate for "ever ELLs," those students who previously were considered ELLs but now speak English, continued to improve, and that rate (84.4 percent) remains more than 4 points higher than for all students.

Elia flagged a rising dropout rate among ELLs, who had the highest rate within a four-year period of any of the subgroups tracked by the state. That dropout rate grew to 29.7 percent in 2017, up 6.8 points from the rate for ELLs two years earlier. Yet, Yonkers and Rochester both bucked that trend and saw their ELL dropout rates decline.

Graduation rates for ELLs improve significantly when they remain in high school beyond four years, Elia noted. For those who were in ninth grade in 2011, the grad rate grew from 33.8 percent after four years to 44.9 percent with five years and to 48.3 percent with six years.

She said state education officials will intensify their focus on helping districts with large numbers of students learning English develop strategies to help those students remain in school.

Achievement gaps

New York's graduation rates continue to vary widely among students in rich and poor districts and among students of differing racial and ethnic backgrounds. Elia said those gaps remain troubling but help to identify areas where the state and local districts need to target their work to improve.

The four-year graduation rate for districts classified as "low need," meaning they tend to be located in more affluent communities, was 94.8 percent. But for "high need" large city districts, the rate was 63.9 percent - a gap of nearly 31 points.

The four-year grad rates for black students (69.3 percent) and Hispanic students (68.4 percent), while slightly improved, remain far behind the rate for white students (89 percent).

"The Regents and the (state education) department will continue their efforts to close this gap through the implementation of the state's ESSA plan and the My Brother's Keeper initiative, aimed at bringing greater fairness throughout the education system," department officials said in a statement.

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