Scores Rise Slightly on High School Progress Reports

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Slightly more city high schools got A's and B's on their report cards this year, and fewer got D's and Fs.

More than 500 public high schools, transfer schools and alternative programs received progress reports for the 2011-2012 academic year. A total of 142 of them received A's, 33.8 percent compared to 32.8 percent in 2011. One hundred fifty-nine schools received a B grade. That's 37.6 percent of the total, a 6.3 percentage point increase over last year.

Twenty-one schools received D's and 10 schools received a failing grade. That's 7.4 percent of all schools, a smaller figure than last year when 11.6 percent received the lowest marks.

For the sixth year, the city scored and graded high schools based on students' test performance and coursework, attendance, progress towards graduation and surveys of school environment. But this year's report cards were the first to count measurements of college and career readiness. The state has found a discrepancy between high school graduation rates and the percentage of students considered ready for college level work, based on the courses they take and test scores.

Stephen Reader/WNYC

Shael Polakow-Suransky, chief academic officer at the Department of Education, said although the college readiness score accounts for only 10 percent of the overall progress report, the measure has helped reinforce the DOE's priority of making students ready for college and career after high school.

“What we’ve found is, even with a small number of points on something, it focuses people. So you don’t have to make it worth 50 points to get people focused on it,” he said. “The purpose of this is primarily to improve the schools. That is its core goal. So we are introducing these measures in a way that is gradual and will motivate teachers and principals to work on these skills with our students.”

A little more than 60 percent of students graduated in four years in 2011. The city has not released its graduation rate for 2012.

But college readiness rates are just half that figure. This year the Department of Education said 29 percent of students who graduated in four years - and 44 percent who took either more or less time - had the skills they need to avoid taking remedial math, writing and English courses at the City University of New York. This is based on scoring at least a 75 on the English Regents and an 80 on the math exams.

College and career readiness indexes take into account how many students score with higher passing rates on their Regents classes, as well as how many students take and pass more challenging Advanced Placement courses, and complete certificates for career and technical education.

Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, dismissed the latest round of high school grades.

"We are still waiting for an honest report on the lack of progress the DOE has made in supporting students, teachers and schools across New York City," he said in a statement.

At one Harlem school, however, the Frederick Douglass Academy II Secondary School, this year's report card was greeted with cheer. The high school improved from a C to an A. It also made huge gains on its middle school progress report earlier this fall, going from an F to a B. Principal Osei Owusu-Afriyie credited his teachers with making their curriculum more engaging for students. As an example, he mentioned a math class in which students imagine tracking the curve of a basketball.

But Owusu-Afriyie said the city's new focus on college and career readiness also benefited FDA II's high school progress report. Overall, 24 percent of the school's four-year graduates were considered ready for college and careers, a number that may sound low but which was high compared to schools with similar populations.

"The students that we serve typically are some of the most challenging in New York City," he said.

The new college and readiness measurements also looked at how many graduates are still enrolled in college 18 months after graduating. At Afriyie's school the figure was 66 percent which he said was impressive for his population.

At the Collegiate Institute for Math and Science in the Bronx, Principal Shadia Alvarez said the college readiness factor helped her school, too. Her overall score fell by three tenths of a percentage point - moving it from an A to a B - because her students didn't make as much progress in some of their classes.

However, Alvarez said the extra points for college readiness prevented the score from falling even further. Last year fewer than half of her four-year graduates were considered ready for college, before the city started counting that measurement in a school's overall score. This year the figure jumped to almost 65 percent. Alvarez credited her guidance counselors and teachers for meeting with students and encouraging them to take more challenging math and science classes.

"So they're hands on looking at their own future," she explained. "'I need to sign up for this course in order to get to take this Advanced Regents, I need to take calculus in order to get into that A.P. class.'"

But there's still a big gap between college readiness and her school's four-year graduate rate of nearly 90 percent. That's why experts hope the new report cards will push schools to look beyond graduation rates and make sure students have the skills they need to be gainfully employed, whether they go to college or to another post-secondary training program.

"I think if we just put up some numbers and give people grades - if that's all it is - then I think that's not going to advance us," said Thomas Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Teachers College Columbia University. But if high schools and colleges come to a better understanding of how they should work together, he said, "then I think it will be positive."

Critics have complained that the annual A-F letter grades can fluctuate greatly, and that the city puts too much stock in them when considering which schools to close. The Department of Education notes that most high schools saw little change in their scores this year, with 95 percent maintaining the same grade or changing by just one grade since 2011.

A few schools the city attempted to close last year, before being blocked by the teachers union, saw their grades go up. John Dewey High School in Brooklyn and Alfred E. Smith Career and Technical Education High School in the Bronx each went from a C to a B. But August Martin High School and Flushing High School in Queens each repeated their D grade.

A total of 24 secondary (6-12), transfer and high schools scored poorly enough to be at risk of closure next fall. The Department of Education notified their principals today. They are:

High School of Graphic Communication Arts
Coalition School for Social Change
Academy for Social Action: A College Board School
Choir Academy of Harlem
Bread & Roses Integrated Arts High School
Holcombe L. Rucker School of Community Research
Herbert H. Lehman High School
Leadership Institute
Bronx High School of Business
Jonathan Levin High School for Media and Communications
West Bronx Academy for the Future (grades 6-8 only)
Fordham Leadership Academy for Business and Technology
DeWitt Clinton High School
Bronx Regional High School
Freedom Academy High School
George Westinghouse Career and Technical Education High School
Juan Morel Campos Secondary School
Foundations Academy
Boys and Girls High School
W.E.B. Dubois Academic High School
Sheepshead Bay High School
Flushing High School
Law, Government and Community Service High School
Computer Applications & Entrepreneurship High School

Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg said education officials have begun conversations with these struggling schools.

"The goal of these discussions is to gain a better understanding of what’s happening at these schools and give them the opportunity to talk about the challenges they face; the strategies and interventions already underway; and what strategies or interventions will be most meaningful to the school as they move forward," Sternberg said. "We'll take the feedback that we receive from the school and community into consideration as we explore options to improve performance and support student success, and we will continue to work with all of our schools to ensure that students have access to high quality options.”

Included on the list are seven of the schools the city tried to close and reopen last year under the federal turnaround program, before it was blocked in court by the teachers union.