Report rips Boston record with ‘off-track’ high school students

1 in 5 students not on course to graduate

A DECADE AFTER a report found that one of every five students in Boston Public Schools had fallen “off track” to graduate from high school, a new study finds that the figure has barely budged, with the district showing little progress in getting those students through high school.

The report documents an uncomfortable truth about the city’s high schools, one that has festered quietly for decades. While better-prepared students enroll in the district’s three high-performing entrance exam schools, those students facing the most challenges are concentrated in “open enrollment” high schools, which compounds the difficulties these students face making it through to graduation. The result: Boston effectively operates two distinct public high school systems, which are, in an echo of the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case on school segregation, separate and unequal.

“I find this report to be both a call to action and further focusing of the work we already are doing,” Superintendent Tommy Chang said in a briefing on Monday with reporters, where he and district leaders outlined steps being taken to address the problems identified.

The report, “Excellence and Equity For All,” is scheduled to be presented to the Boston School Committee on Wednesday evening.

The analysis, carried out by the consulting firm EY-Parthenon and funded by the Barr Foundation, found that 18 percent of Boston high school students, or 3,308 students, were off-track to graduate at the start of the 2015-2016 school year. That is only a slight improvement from the 20 percent figure in a 2007 report, also done by Parthenon.

The district’s graduation rate has increased from 57.9 percent in 2007 to 72.7 percent in 2017, but the report found that has not translated to gains in significantly reducing the share of off-track students.

Just over half of Boston high school students attend one of the district’s 18 open enrollment high schools, and the vast majority off-track students attend one of these schools or one of the six alternative high schools specifically geared toward to such students. Only 35 percent of off-track students will graduate from high school within four years of entering 8th grade, while 9 out of 10 students who never fall more than a year behind will finish high school in that time frame.

“Our analysis shows that BPS high schools have an urgent need for improvement, even just focusing on attaining high school graduation,” says the report. “If a college and career readiness lens were applied, the need would be much more glaring and urgent.”

Black and Latino students account for 90 percent of the off-track population, and they account for the overwhelming share of students in open-enrollment high schools and alternative school programs.

The district has developed a set of measures, dubbed “early warning indicators,” to flag 8th grade students at risk for falling off track in high school based on attendance, discipline issues, or academic progress. Thirty percent of off-track high school students were in Boston public middle schools and had no early warning indicators, suggesting their troubles began after reaching high school.

“[T]he data suggest the need for a dramatic new approach to improving open enrollment schools – with the promise at some schools suggesting the promise that all schools can deliver much stronger outcomes for all students than is seen today,” the report says.

The report says “stratification” in the system, where the most challenged students are concentrated in a subset of high schools, is exacerbating the problem of off-track students, a pattern that exhibits a sharp division by race. Two-thirds of white and Asian students attend high schools with expected graduation rates greater than 80 percent, while almost 40 percent of black and Latino students attend schools with an expected graduation rate under 65 percent.

The report points to a number of factors that contribute to the disparities, starting with the fact that almost 45 percent of high school seats are reserved for students who meet selective admission criteria, either one of the three exam schools or schools such as Boston Arts Academy, which have an application process for enrollment. Ninety percent of the seats for those with specific needs, such as English language learners and special education students, are in open enrollment high schools. In addition, 95 percent of students who do not get assigned a high school in the first round of the district’s complicated enrollment system, end up assigned to open enrollment schools.

For students who are already at some risk of falling off track, the report found that being enrolled at a high school with a high concentration of other students with similar challenges significantly increases the chances of not graduating.

A typical at-risk Boston student, who failed one core academic course in 8th grade but had no other early warning indicators, has a 70 percent chance of graduating, according to the report. That graduation figure rises to 85 percent if the student attends a high school where only 5 percent of students arrived with one or more early warning indicators, but the graduation rate falls to just 52 percent for such students who are in high schools where half the students showed early warning indicators in 8th grade.

The report suggests that the city’s high school system ends up adding insult to injury, with the most at-risk students “disproportionately enrolled in the schools that have the highest concentrations of need.”

The report also paints a troubling picture of the district’s alternative high schools, saying they have a poorer track record with off-track students than other district schools educating comparable students. The six-year graduation rate for off-track students at alternative high schools is 30 percent, while the rate is 39 percent among students with similar profiles at other district high schools.

An effective alternative education system, the report says, should generate better outcomes among off-track students than traditional schools. Among the possible explanations the report offers for the poor results is the enrollment of students at a given alternative school with widely varying needs, a situation that effectively asks the schools “to be all things for all students.”

The report is also critical of a district office established to help steer students who have already dropped out or are at risk for doing so into alternative education programs. It found that only about half of those students referred by the office to an alternative school wind up placed in such a program.

The report recommends that the district take several steps to address problems it says are “sustained and systemic in nature.”

It says the district should look to expand or replicate those open enrollment schools showing better results.

The report calculated expected graduation rates for Boston high schools based on their student profiles, and found that some open enrollment high schools “over-perform” their expected rates. The study suggests there is an opportunity to learn from those open enrollment high schools showing stronger performance or progress – it singles out TechBoston Academy, Jeremiah E. Burke High School, English High School, and East Boston High School. It says these schools appear to provide stronger support to ensure that students graduate and make better use of resources and data.

The report recommends an overhaul of alternative schools, with schools designed to serve particular segments of the off-track student populations.

It also suggests better use of early warning indicator data to provide support to at-risk students and a reworking of funding to allocate more resources to schools based on their population of at-risk or off-track students.

The report also recommends considering changes to admissions policies in order to “enhance equity and create conditions that allow all schools to succeed.” It says that could include placing more programs for special needs students or English language learners in high-performing schools and considering changes to the admission criteria for schools.

In 2016, Chang said an advisory committee formed in the wake of allegations of racial discrimination at the city’s top exam school, Boston Latin School, was considering recommendations to change exam school admission requirements to boost their black and Latino enrollment. But Mayor Marty Walsh quickly shot down the idea.

Such a change would prove very unpopular with middle-class families in Boston who look to the exam schools to provide a quality high school education that prepares students for college.

Boston Public School officials say they are already working to implement some changes that the report identifies, including better matching alternative education programs with student needs and redesigning the student re-engagement center that serves off-track students and those who have already dropped out.

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Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth Beacon

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