There's a big difference between graduating high school with a diploma and graduating ready for college. Last year, 64 percent of New York City's high school seniors graduated on time but only 47 percent of those grads had the right combination of grades and credits for the city to label them "college ready."
Now, a new analysis released Thursday by the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School offered one reason for the discrepancy: many high schools simply do not offer the courses students need to apply to college.
The report found a striking 39 percent of city high schools do not offer standard college-prep courses in math and science, such as Algebra 2, physics and chemistry. Roughly 21 percent of city high school students attend schools that don't offer courses in both chemistry and physics. Without a firm grounding in these subjects, students are far more likely to require time-consuming and costly remedial classes when they enter college, if they enter college.
The analysis found many of the high schools lacking in math and science are the small schools that sprouted up under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg to replace large failing high schools.
"This is not to trash the small schools," said Clara Hemphill, editor of InsideSchools at the Center for New York City Affairs. "Tens of thousands of kids now have a high school diploma" who otherwise might have dropped out.
But, she said, many of the high schools are limited in what they can offer because of their size, and because they receive so many entering ninth graders who are struggling in math and reading.
The report, which Hemphill contributed to, singled out other inequities that result in "an intense bifurcation of the city's public high school system."
Only 18 percent of students earned Advanced Regents diplomas last year, which require passing more math and science tests. Yet, nearly half of those students were clustered in just 25 schools that tend to admit kids who are better prepared. Those schools also have students who are disproportionately white and Asian.
By contrast, at the 100 schools where no Advanced Regents diplomas were awarded, the student body was 92 percent black and Hispanic.
Meanwhile, the hyper-competitive application process students face when applying to New York City high schools means the education they receive in elementary and middle school can severely limit their choices.
"It's really tough for a child who does poorly in seventh grade to get into a high school that offers a challenging curriculum," said Hemphill. "There are a few exceptions, but overall it's a system that's hard on late bloomers."
Even students at schools that offer higher level math and science classes may struggle if they don't have a firm foundation. The report cites the Marie Curie School for Medicine, Nursing and Health Professions in the Bronx, where only 4 percent of students earned Advanced Regents diplomas last year. Just 20 percent of graduates scored high enough on their tests to avoid remedial courses at the City University of New York.
The report recommended giving more class time to math in the middle and high schools. It noted that the traditional school day allowed for just 42 minutes of math instruction. More successful schools had much longer math classes, it said. It recommended hiring math specialists at the elementary level, and investing in more schools that serve grades 6-12 to better support kids who got a poor foundation in elementary school.
Chancellor Carmen Fariña has thrown her support behind another recommendation, which is to have small schools share resources including Advanced Placement math and science teachers. In response to the new report, her spokeswoman, Devora Kaye, issued the following statement:
“Our goal is to provide every New York City student with the math and science skills they need to succeed in college and meaningful careers" she said. "And we have taken concrete steps to improve offerings and raise achievement."
She pointed to a math curriculum for pre-kindergarten classes, the expansion of Common Core-aligned teacher training and the development of new materials like the Science Scope and Sequence and STEM framework. Kaye also noted that the city's measurement of college readiness has improved; in 2010 it was just 34 percent.