City of lost children

By Michelle Chen Apr 30, 2009

Data trickling out of New York City’s education system suggests as schools have pushed up test scores, they’ve also pushed out more students. A study released by the Public Advocate’s office shows that between 2000 and 2007, more than 140,000 students were “discharged”—leaving school without a diploma. The discharge rate rose from 17.5 percent to over 21 percent during these years. Black and Latino students were discharged at higher rates than students of other backgrounds. What’s more troubling is that no one seems to know exactly where these students have gone. The Education Department attributes much of the recent loss of students to families moving to other areas, or transfers to parochial schools. But the researchers contend that other demographic data does not affirm these supposed trends, raising suspicions that many of these “discharges” are miscategorized dropouts. Though the report doesn’t delve into the possible link between discharges and federal education policy, many progressive education reformers argue thatargue that the purging of students is an overlooked byproduct of loopholes in No Child Left Behind. A separate study in Texas projected that a focus on high-stakes testing mandates would widen racial and economic gaps. Researchers concluded that the state’s racially differentiated "accountability" system–

“puts our most vulnerable youth, the poor, the English language learners, and African American and Latino children, at risk of being pushed out of their schools so the school ratings can show ‘measurable improvement.’ High-stakes, test-based accountability leads not to equitable educational possibilities for youth, but to avoidable losses of these students from our schools.”

Another way for public schools to shut out less desirable students is to siphon children with disabilities into under-resourced special education programs. New York City’s special education system has been criticized for warehousing students—disproportionately Black and Latino children—in segregated programs and "self-contained" classroom settings that lack even basic academic supports. Not surprisingly, the Public Advocate’s analysis indicates a sharp increase in discharges of special ed students, particularly those in self-contained classes. The research casts shadows on the city’s general four-year graduation figure, 62 percent in 2007:

“If discharges were counted as dropouts and GEDs were not counted as graduates, the African-American general education graduation rate for the Class of 2007 would fall to 44 percent, the Hispanic graduation rate to 39 percent, the male graduation rate to 42 percent, the ELL graduation rate to 21 percent, and the special education graduation rate to 6 percent.”

Since the passage of No Child Left Behind, politicians have hailed exams and accountability as the key to alleviating inequity in public education. But after schools have tested, measured and reformed their way into compliance with government standards, how many children will be left? Image via flickr