Do High-Needs Students Affect a School's Grade?

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WNYC's Beth Fertig

New York City's latest plan to reform special education services encourages public school principals to take more of the neediest students. An analysis by WNYC shows how these students are not distributed evenly across all schools. The analysis also found that high schools with the best report card grades often take smaller percentages of the special education students who are the toughest to educate.

The chart below shows that high schools that earned As and Bs on their annual progress reports tend to take a small share of special education students who require segregated classes, or what the Education Department calls "self-contained" classes. These are students who can't be included in mainstream classes most of the time because they require more intensive services. Some high-performing schools have just a sprinkling of these students, representing less than 2 percent of their overall population.

Still, it's not clear that there's a link between having a lot of these challenging students and getting a poor grade, contrary to what some critics contend.

All nine high schools that the city's Panel for Educational Policy voted last week to phase-out for low performance do have a large percentage of these students, according to our analysis. Those schools are indicated with red diamonds. But the chart also shows that just because a school has a lot of these students doesn't mean it's more likely to get a D or an F. Discovery High School in the Bronx, for example, got an A on its progress report, and more than 11 percent of its students are in self-contained classes.

The city's chief academic officer, Shael Polakow-Suransky, cited schools like Discovery as proof that good schools can make a difference with even the most challenging pupils. But he acknowledged that students with serious needs are tough to educate.

"Where you have high concentrations it can have an overall impact on a school community," he said.

City officials are now asking principals of screened high schools to try to boost the enrollment of special education pupils as a way to create a more equitable distribution. Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott wrote to principals in January, asking them to "admit and serve a percentage of students with disabilities equivalent to the percentage of students with disabilities in their district or borough."

The policy is also intended to give the students more options.

“Ensuring that incoming 9th graders with disabilities have the same access to screened high schools is just one way that we’re raising academic standards for all of our students," Mr. Walcott said in a statement.

An Education Department spokeswoman, Deidrea Miller, said the screened high schools typically reserve some seats for students with disabilities who meet their academic requirements, but they aren't always filled. If the schools don't take more of these students on their own this year, she said the Education Department would place applicants in available seats.

For years, education watchdogs have complained that many students with special needs are concentrated in large under-performing schools, "dooming" the schools to lower marks from the city. The critics have complained that small new schools, in particular, don't take enough of these students when they replace larger, failing high schools. The city has adamantly denied this claim.

A recent study by MDRC finds students who attend small high schools have higher graduation rates than those who applied but went to other public schools. The study noted that most of the students are low-income and minority, but the study did not include students in self-contained classes.

The analysis by WNYC included all high schools that were graded by the city in 2010-2011. We left out dozens of schools the city is already in the process of closing because they weren't given grades last year. We also left out students in District 75, which consists of special schools and programs just for those students.

The city's Independent Budget Office posted descriptive statistics of the schools slated for closing, which also seemed to indicate a relationship between the percentage of a school's high-needs students and its likelihood to earn low grades and be closed.

Mr. Polakow-Suransky said the I.B.O.’s report is “rife with errors” and that he has spoken with the agency about his objections. He said the city still believes that schools should be able to educate everyone who is enrolled, and that it is possible to earn an A or a B on the school progress report, no matter the student population.

"I refuse to accept that it's impossible to move kids who are high needs," he said, "because I've seen it happen over and over again."