On the uptick

Greater Memphis gets encouraging report on student graduation rates

PHOTO: Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal
Booker T. Washington High School seniors toss their graduation caps into the air last spring at the conclusion of their graduation ceremony at the Orpheum Theatre.

Graduation rates for most Memphis-area schools climbed in 2015-16, with the city’s largest district enjoying an increase of almost 4 percent to 78.7 percent.

While well below the statewide average of 88.5 percent, the increased rate puts Shelby County Schools ahead of pace to reach the goal of 90 percent in its Destination 2025 strategic plan.

It’s also the second straight increase for the district, which saw a slight bump in 2014-15 based on about two dozen high schools.

“I’m extremely proud of this accomplishment,” Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said in a statement released Tuesday. “So much credit goes to our teachers, school leaders and district staff who work so hard every day to implement effective strategies for preparing our students for on-time graduation.”

Graduation rates for other Memphis-area districts were also up, except for in Millington and Tennessee’s Achievement School District:

  • Arlington Community Schools rose 1 percent to 96.4 percent;
  • Bartlett City Schools up 3.1 percent to 88.6 percent;
  • Collierville Schools rose 1.1 percent to 92.4 percent;
  • Germantown Municipal Schools increased 4.9 percent to 94.4 percent;
  • Millington Municipal Schools fell 3.1 percent to 81 percent.
  • The Achievement School District’s rate dropped more than 7 percent to 40.4 percent.

It’s significant to note that the ASD is tasked with turning around the state’s lowest-performing schools. Its graduation rate is based on four state-run high schools in Memphis, including two alternative schools.

“The dip in grad rate isn’t reflective of fewer ASD students graduating overall,” said Margo Roen, chief of strategy and portfolio management. “Instead it speaks to the challenges that many of our students have in graduating on time based on the number of earned credit hours they have when their schools join the ASD.”

Meanwhile, the statewide graduation rate of 88.5 percent is the highest on record since Tennessee changed to a more rigorous calculation of graduation rates in 2011. The state reported that about 60 percent of Tennessee’s 146 districts saw their graduation rates increase or stay the same when compared with last year’s rates.

Tennessee’s rising graduation rate received accolades from a national group last year for consistently outpacing the rest of the nation. However, another recent study pointed out the “jaw-dropping” gap between graduation rates and college readiness for black students in Tennessee. Seventy-eight percent of the state’s black students graduated from high school in 2013, but only 4 percent tested as college-ready in all four ACT-tested subjects, according to the report.

“… As more Tennessee students are earning their diplomas, we must ensure that they are all leaving with the knowledge and skills to be successful in college and the workforce,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Tuesday.

Other highlights of Tennessee’s 2015-16 graduation report include:

  • Twelve districts improved their graduation rates by 5 percentage points or more. Districts with the most significant gains were Alvin C. York, 18.1 percent; Tullahoma City, 11.6 percent; Trenton Special School District, 11.1 percent; and Grundy County, 10 percent.
  • 95 districts — over 70 percent of the districts in the state — have graduation rates at or above 90 percent, up from 81 districts last year. Fentress County, Alcoa City, South Carroll Special School District, Milan Special School District, Meigs County, and Crockett County all had graduation rates at or above 99 percent.
  • 76 districts — roughly 60 percent of districts in the state — had graduation rates at or above 90 percent for both 2014-15 and 2015-16.

getting to graduation

A capstone project before graduation? New York debates new ways to earn a diploma

PHOTO: Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal
Booker T. Washington High School seniors toss their graduation caps into the air last spring at the conclusion of their graduation ceremony at the Orpheum Theatre.

As New York continues to rethink what students must do to graduate high school, state policymakers floated their latest idea Monday: Let some students complete a “capstone project” on their path to a diploma.

State education officials have long grappled with graduation requirements. Traditionally, students have had to pass five “Regents” exams in order to graduate. But in recent years, the state has created additional options after policymakers argued that strict test-score requirements can hold some students back.

The debate in New York comes as several states have decided to drop or deemphasize their own exit exams. In New York, policymakers are caught between two cross-currents, said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

“One is assuring students a fair chance at earning a diploma,” he said. “The other current is to try and ensure a diploma means something.”

New York is one of only two states that require five or more exams to graduate. Several states have moved away from exit exams. Just last week, California’s governor officially abolished theirs.

New York currently allows students to replace one of the Regents exams with alternative assessments, including a career-focused exam or an arts test. The state has also made exceptions for students with disabilities, who only need to pass two Regents exams to graduate.

Last year, the state Board of Regents discussed allowing students to substitute a project-based assessment for a failed Regents exam. Allowing students to swap in a capstone project for a Regents exam would fit that trend.

However, when asked about the proposal, State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said students would be able to complete it in addition to the exit exams — not in lieu of them.

“It would not replace Regents exams,” she told Chalkbeat. “Be real clear about that.”

But if Elia is cautious about replacing Regents exams, some board members want to radically rethink the state’s graduation requirements.

Regent Roger Tilles said Monday that the exit exams might be “holding students back as opposed to helping” them. In the past, he has said the state should “start from scratch” and come up with a totally new path to a diploma. (Another board member, Lester Young, proposed on Monday creating a commission to study alternative graduation options.)

Tilles’ remarks earned a round of applause from a group of parents who have been attending meetings to push for more diploma options. One parent advocate, Wendy Harnisher, said Elia should not rule out making the capstone project one option for students who are struggling to graduate.

“For her to say no,” Harnisher said, “I think that’s closing a door on an opportunity that could potentially help a lot of kids.”

The state education department has not made a final decision about the capstone project proposal, and will solicit public feedback before doing so, said spokeswoman Emily DeSantis, adding that the state is committed to giving students multiple ways to graduate.

“This is not about changing our graduation standards,” she said. “It’s about providing different avenues – equally rigorous – for kids to demonstrate they are ready to graduate with a meaningful diploma.”

diploma dilemma

New York’s graduation rate could drop under new federal education law

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

New York state’s high school graduation rate may take a hit due to an under-the-radar provision in the new federal education law.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, requires states to count only “standard” diplomas earned by a “preponderance” of students or honors diplomas in their federal graduation rate. It’s possible that definition would exclude New York’s “local” diploma, a less rigorous option earned by only about 4 percent of graduating students. (Most students earn a “Regents” diploma, which requires higher exit-exam scores than the local version.)

The U.S. Education Department is currently reviewing New York’s ESSA plan. It’s unclear how the federal agency will enforce the graduation rule — and whether New York’s local diploma will pass muster — but experts say it does not appear to meet the requirements of the law. If so, New York may be forced to lower its graduation rate or report separate state and federal rates.

“The law is really clear about what can be counted,” said Anne Hyslop, an education consultant who formerly worked as a senior policy advisor at the U.S. Department of Education. “As long as the Regents is the standard diploma, the only diploma that can be counted is a higher, more rigorous diploma.”

U.S. education department officials declined to say whether New York’s local diploma will count towards the state’s graduation rate under ESSA. New York officials noted that their plan is still under review.

Indiana has already felt the effects of the new rule.

Indiana’s education department announced that in response to the federal law its “general” diploma which is earned by about 12 percent of Indiana graduates who struggle academically or have a disability will no longer be included in its federal graduation rate.

The federal rate is used to hold schools accountable for their performance. States must target any school with a graduation rate below 67 percent for improvement, though states can decide which interventions to use. (New York’s plan allows schools to use their six-year graduation rates to meet that benchmark.)

In response to the new rule, Indiana officials are considering using two different graduation rates: one for the federal accountability system and the other for the state’s. In practice, that would mean different sets of criteria for when state and federal school interventions kick in.

New York could theoretically use two separate counts as well. In that scenario, it would use the lower federal rate for ESSA accountability purposes, such as identifying low-performing schools. But it would still maintain a state rate that factors in local diplomas — a move that would enable students to keep earning the local diploma, which is recognized by colleges and the military.

“The local diploma can still be awarded,” Hyslop said. “That diploma still carries meaning.”

But reporting two separate graduation rates has drawbacks particularly for anyone who wants to understand how schools are performing, said Michael Cohen, president of the nonprofit Achieve, which helps states work on academic standards.

“It would be confusing to anyone who wants to know what the actual graduation rate in the state is,” Cohen said. “If I were a resident in a state that did that I would wonder what’s going on.”

The intent of ESSA’s “preponderance” rule is to push states to issue a single diploma option without lowering the bar for any students, including those with disabilities. Many advocates think if states create easier options it will lower expectations for some students.

“We do believe that students with disabilities largely can achieve the regular standards diploma options,” said Melissa Turner, senior manager for state policy at the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

But sticking to a single graduation cutoff inevitably means leaving some students without a diploma, which can thwart their job or college ambitions.

Rather than withhold a diploma from students who score below the cutoff, New York created the local diploma option. It functions as a safety net for students who are struggling academically, still learning English or have disabilities. There are several ways students with disabilities can earn the credential, but the most recent option allows students to graduate by passing only the math and English Regents exam.

“It’s about providing different avenues – equally rigorous – for kids to demonstrate they are ready to graduate with a meaningful diploma,” said state education department spokeswoman Emily DeSantis, adding that officials would include ESSA in their graduation discussions over the coming months.

Still, experts warned that New York’s alternative diploma options may run afoul of ESSA.

If New York was “really following the letter of the law they would just drop their graduation rates,” by a few percentage points, said Monica Almond, the senior associate for policy development and government relations at the Alliance for Excellent Education.