Most high school grads not college-ready

John Christensen

 In what to many is a startling revelation, a report from the New York State Education Department declares that only 40.8 percent of New York’s high school seniors who graduated in 2009 were prepared for college or a career. This is compared to the statewide overall graduation rate of 76.8 percent, a 36-point discrepancy.

In the department’s tabulations, two of Yates County’s school districts — Penn Yan and Dundee — fall within a statistical group labeled “Rural High Need.” Within that group, the difference is wider still, with an 81.4 percent graduation rate, but only 40.4 percent college/career ready; a difference of 41 percent. Marcus Whitman is classified in the “Average Need” group, with 85.7 percent graduation and 52.7 percent college/career readiness, a 33 point difference.

The criteria used for making this determination were the results of the Mathematics and English Regents’ examinations. Passing on these exams is 65, but the score for college/career readiness was set at 80 for Math and 75 for English. This is a new measuring stick from NYSED, which has until this point, graded school districts by looking at student scores on the levels of 55, 65, and 85 percent on all Regents’ exams.

Colleges and universities often have to enroll incoming freshmen in remedial English and Math courses to bring the students up the school’s expectations. Citing this need for remediation as evidence of a deficiency in high school education, New York’s Regents’ diploma does not have the reputation it once enjoyed.

Penn Yan’s Associate Superintendent for Instruction and Staff Development Howard Dennis said, “We need a better definition of what is ‘college ready.’ I don’t know if we’re shooting for the same target.”

It is no surprise that affluent “low need” districts fared the best with 72.3 percent being college/career ready, but there is still a 22.3-point difference from their 94.6 graduation rate. Urban districts were alarmingly low in college/career readiness with New York City at 22.8 percent, Buffalo at 15.6 percent, and Rochester at 5.1 percent.

What the Board of Regents is going to do with this information is still unknown, but according to chancellor Merryl H. Tisch, a decision will be issued in March. Last year, the state tests in grades three through eight were made more difficult after the Regents discovered that the passing rates they had previously set did not correlate to student success in high school.

“With three through eight, we ripped the Band Aid off,” said Dr. Tisch in an interview with the New York Times. “The thing we said then, in looking at the business world, is that if you sit on this, you become the Enron of test scores, the Enron of graduation rates. We need to indicate exactly what it all means, especially since we’ve already said that college-ready should be the indicator of high school completion.”

Dr. Tisch’s omission of the word “career”  from “college/career ready” term did not go unnoticed. Rural districts have long argued that the monomania of the Board of Regents of the University of the State of New York has been test-obsessed college preparation, ignoring the desire of many high school students to engage in trades, agriculture, and business, as well as the vital need for qualified people to fill such positions.

At a recent regional conference, Dennis reported that everything Chancellor Tisch and State Education Commissioner David M. Steiner were discussing referred to college readiness and helping urban schools. Dennis says he did his best to remind them that the rural schools were there, too.

There is a suggestion in the Regent’s report that Career and Technical Education (CTE) students may be allowed to substitute a technical proficiency test for one of the four required Regents’ exams in the future, but Marcus Whitman Superintendent Michael Chirco holds out little hope for NYSED’s promises of local flexibility. “More flexibility would certainly be welcome, but the fact is that whenever state ed gets involved, they invariably reduce flexibility. Local school board control is gone. As for the CTE students, many of the trades don’t have a technical proficiency test that could be used in place of a Regents’ exam.”

Dundee Superintendent Kathy Ring declined to comment until she completes reviewing the report.

In a typically convoluted manner, the same report also mentions plans to increase the number of required exams to five, and to permanently raise the passing score on English to the aforementioned 75 and Math to 80. Among the consequences of such changes, the report admits to the probable decline of graduation rates in high-need districts, the necessity of lengthening the school day and year, a reduced flexibility in scheduling and ultimately, the need to hire more teachers.

What the report does not address is how the state and school districts could fund these changes. Nor does it mention the plans to move to a National examination system by 2014. With what is already the 10th lowest graduation rate in the United States, this report casts further gloom upon the broken education system of New York, once esteemed as the gold standard of state education.

Penn Yan and Dundee Schools fall in the Rural High Need category (Yellow) while Marcus Whitman is in the Average Need category (cyan)