I had the pleasure of attending the Spring Convening of the America Achieves NY Educator Voice Fellowship in Albany recently. The night before our meeting with lawmakers (which I’ll also be blogging about), I met great Fellows that shared some of the very same issues that my school faces with my students- attendance, college readiness, environmental issues that support truancy and failure. It’s amazing that no matter where you are in the state, our students are faced with insurmountable hurdles. For our kids here in NYC, they face the constant cycle of failure through drug addiction, gang affiliations, teenage pregnancy, abuse, and homelessness. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. I’ve blogged about those issues, and how perseverance is a victory. When my students come to school late, they are welcomed, because we just don’t know what they had to go through to get here. Today I want to talk about accountability around students, because it seems to me, through some basic research and from my talking to peers, that the neediest students are treated the worst in terms of what buckets state accountability measures like to place them.
I would like to tell the story of a beautiful young man that just recently earned his high school diploma. For the purposes of this story I’d like to call him Phoenix. Phoenix was a student that came to us under special circumstances. He had an IEP and had failed middle school several times. The old school he came from was sure to write us a letter and tell us how he was never able to meet “their” high standards, but perhaps he could meet ours. The shade you are picking up was intentional. This school never believed that Phoenix would succeed in anything.
To make a long story short, over time, Phoenix grew from a student of failure, to a student of success. He passed Regents exams. He passed his classes. He made the honor roll. This January he earned his diploma. When he stopped in to say goodbye, we were meeting as a faculty and brought him in to be recognized. After telling the staff he would be attending Medgar Evers in the spring and working on his nursing degree, the room erupted in applause. And Phoenix had to step out, his face full of tears. Our Phoenix. Finally a graduate. According to NYS accountability measures, it’s our Phoenix: High School Drop-out.
You see, Phoenix didn’t graduate in four years. Even though he has until 21 years of age, Phoenix is still a failure of the New York State education system. Doesn’t make sense right?
So you may be asking, what exactly is the four year cohort graduation rate? The National Governor’s Association (NGA) submitted with the signatures of all 50 states the definition of when a student should graduate from high school: As defined in 34 C.F.R. §200.19(b)(1)(i)-(iv), the four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate (hereafter referred to as “the four-year graduation rate”) is the number of students who graduate in four years with a regular high school diploma divided by the number of students who form the adjusted cohort for the graduating class.
The issue for schools all around the country is that students who are deemed “at-risk”, the over-aged and under-credited, there is no “safe” way to serve and save these students except going beyond the four years that we have to give them an education. This includes all kinds of students- students like Phoenix who have an IEP and just need extra time to be brought up to grade level. It also includes students that are absent for long periods of time due to extenuating circumstances- such as my newfound colleague from Western NY who has students out of school to help their family’s farm. In those circumstances, when a student is beyond the age of compulsory education (16 in NY), families can’t be held accountable for keeping their students out of school. That isn’t the whole picture either. Students can miss school because they are in substance abuse programs, or because they have had children. Regardless of the circumstances, students from all over the country are losing their opportunity to be educated because schools are being forced to place students in alternative settings to avoid getting their hand slapped. Whatever happened to the true meaning of “no child left behind?” All we are doing for this particular group- the at-risk group- is forcing them out the door with no diploma and no hope.
Now in some states, the accountability team can be reasonable. For example, some alternative schools in Denver, Colorado can apply for a distinction that grants them some leeway in being accountable for the four year cohort rate (Colorado measures through the 7 year cohort). Other states, like California, specifically state that schools can’t be compared to other schools that specialize in this population because the data will be significantly different (California also allows measures for a six year graduation cohort). On the other side of that, many states have troubling drop procedures. Many schools can just drop students from their rolls after 30 days.
It sounds like an awful lot of complaining, but think about school operations. For schools, four year graduation accountability rates can mean a whole lot of things- from being a school in good standing and being eligible for other distinctions, such as grant applications and opportunities, to being a school in trouble, with no opportunites. Schools are faced with tough decisions: dropping students after their 30 day wait period and investigation, or taking hit on graduation rates. So what is the lesser of the evils? Many schools opt for graduation rate, because it is less of a hit to transfer a student to another program (and incidentally many alternative programs are then considered “adult education” where these kids are earning GED’s).
We have to evaluate how we are measuring the successes of all students. Students with IEP’s, ELLs, transient students, there are so many different reasons why a student just cannot graduate in four years. In the adult world, no one notices how long it takes a student to graduate, but they certainly notice if they have not. I don’t think schools want to shy away from accountability. But the measures must be fair for all learners. Now is the time, while we evaluate how students are measured academically, to revisit graduation success rates. Schools that particularly serve this group of students should be supported in their efforts to help our youth achieve success and have a bright future. After all, if we hadn’t accepted Phoenix and given him the time to graduate, he would be nowhere but on the street. Why would anyone want that to keep happening?