A Suggestion to the NYS Board of Regents: Create Policies That Increase High School Graduation Rates?

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

While the 10th Amendment to the Constitution reserves education as a state power Washington has steadily eroded the state authority to determine education policy within the states. From the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965) to No Child Left Behind (2002) to Race to the Top (2010) the feds increasingly set the rules. The latest set of rules are the different bills passed by the two houses of Congress, bills that actually return a range of authorities to the states.

Sadly there is no evidence that the feds, and especially the Obama-Duncan policies have actually improved student performance, in fact, one could argue that student performance has been diminished.

Since 1784 education in New York State has been guided by the Board of Regents, a body established under the state constitution. Just as the feds have ripped policy away from the states, Governor Cuomo has ripped powers away from the Regents. The changes in the law directing how teachers and principals are assessed, increasing the length of teacher probation, removing perhaps scores of schools and handing them over to receivers, all initiatives that are both unproven and destabilizing.

The required federally imposed grades 3-8 testing regimen is in disarray. At least 165,000 parents have opted their kids out of the tests. The tests themselves have been widely criticized and the Regents have dumped the testing company, and, rather than “raise the bar” the new Common Core State Standards are widely criticized. Are our student learning more? No one knows …

Hopefully next year authority will be returned to the states and New York State education policy will be set by the Board of Regents.

Perhaps the Regents should look at graduation rates and allow data to drive policy decisions.

25% of students entering the 9th grade fail to graduate with four years.

Who are the students?

Why are they failing to graduate?

What policy changes are necessary to increase graduation rates?

Chronic Absenteeism

The State Education Department (SED) provides a wealth of data – see press release with links here
and a deck of PowerPoint slides here; however the releases are more interested in self-praise than a useful examination.

The major reason kids don’t graduate is simple, after years of poor attendance they drop out of school – the primary reason for dropping out is chronic absenteeism. A November, 2014 Report from the Center for NYC Affairs spotlights the issue: A Better Picture of Poverty: What Chronic Absenteeism and Risk Load Reveal About NYC’s Lowest Income Elementary Schools.

The report … identifies 130 schools in which more than one-third of the children were chronically absent for five years in a row. Perhaps not surprisingly, these schools have very low levels of academic achievement as measured by standardized tests.

Chronic absenteeism correlates with deep poverty–high rates of homelessness, child abuse reports, male unemployment, and low levels of parental education. In fact, the report states, chronic absenteeism is a much better index of poverty than the traditional measure of the number of children eligible for free lunch. Moreover, it’s very hard for schools to escape the pull of poverty: only a handful of schools with above-average rates of chronic absenteeism had above-average pass rates on their standardized tests for math and reading–and most scored far below, the report states.

The quality of the instruction is irrelevant if the student is not in school.

How many of chronically absent student families are in the social service system? To what extent do social service and schools interact? Numbers of school psychologists, guidance counselor and social workers in schools have been decreasing since the economic debacle in 2008.

State education, school district and schools must work closely with social service agencies at the state, county and local level, the burden of poverty-driven risk loads sharply increase chronic absenteeism, and, if the kid isn’t in his seat day in and day out Common Core or master teachers or iconic principals don’t matter.

The agencies/services that impact families in poverty cannot continue to operate in silos, and, we should not blame schools for the failure of public policy.

Students with Disabilities

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (1973, amended 2004) requires all states to establish mechanisms to identify students with disabilities and place them in settings appropriate to their disability. Except for the severely disabled all students must take federally imposed grades 3-8 tests and Regents exams, with testing modifications determined by their Individual Education Plan (IEP), commonly extended time. The safety net for students with disabilities was the Regent Competency Test (RCT), a path to a local diploma for the student who was unable to pass Regents exams. The state has fully phased out the RCT exam, the only path to a diploma are the five required Regents exams.

The New York State Career Development and Occupational Studies (CDOS) commencement credential is another path; however, the credential is not a diploma (See regulations for CDOS here).

Can we create a path for the student with a disability who can pass two, three or four, but not five Regents exams?

Advocates for Children has issued a Report (December 2013) entitled, Rethinking Pathways to High School Graduation.

Each year, approximately 48,000 students in New York State are at risk of dropping out, representing a significant cost to individuals and the State.

This number is only likely to increase as the State rolls out more rigorous Common Core standards. It is therefore time for the State to develop a plan that ensures students are not prevented from graduating because they cannot adequately convey their knowledge or abilities on high-stakes standardized assessments.

The Report examines how other states have adapted graduation requirements to address the student with a disability and makes a wide range of recommendations. New York State, sadly, has lagged far behind other states. Our state has granted a waiver to 42 schools who offer graduation by portfolio in lieu of five Regents exams (the ELA Regents is required), surely we can develop a range of options, and, yes, we must avoid the credit recovery debacle that allowed schools to skirt state regulations. To punish students who come to school every day, pass their subjects and can pass three or four Regents is both cruel and senseless.

English Language Learners

As part of the enrollment process every student whose home language is not English takes the NYSESLAT, a test that examines a student’s ability to read, write and speak English. If a student “fails” test the student is placed in a bilingual class, or, in schools with multiple language an ESL class. The regulations are compliance regs.

Let’s address three categories of students, “Ever-L’s,” students who entered a bilingual or ESLclassroom and never “score” out, students with “interrupted formal education (SIFE), frequently teenagers who arrived after a number of years with no schooling, and “unaccompanied minors,” the influx of students from Central America who arrived throughout the year. The State regs, Part 154, are compliance regs, requiring appropriate teacher certification and minutes of instruction, the regs leave the implementation to schools.

Disturbing numbers of ELL’s fail to graduate, and we again have to ask ourselves, why? What is especially disturbing is that some schools, the Newcomer and Internationals Network in New York City have both graduation and college placement rates similar to all other schools. The SED spent years hassling over a revision of the Part 154 regs and, unfortunately, the revision failed to address the failure of L’s to graduate. Why do L’s prosper and graduate in a few schools and not in the much larger cohort of schools? Are our regs flawed? Are our school structures flawed? A lack of professional development? The Regents have an obligation to address and create a path for our increasing numbers of English Language Learners.

Arne Duncan and Andrew Cuomo have forced “reforms” that not only will not improve teaching and learning they will probably erode teaching and learning.

Hopefully the Board of Regents will take a close look at graduation rates; “Understanding By Design ” or “planning backward” is a well-established, highly regarded educational tool – why not use the tool to address a crucial issue: how can the Board of Regents create a state-wide plan to increase graduation rates; a plan that may require legislative action, a plan that involves the entire education community.

To leave school without a high school diploma dooms kids to a life of endless struggle.

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