Recently, the state released data on graduation rates in school districts. The data covered students who entered as freshmen in 2016. While some districts place a lot of emphasis on the data, others (like those in Seneca County) do not focus as much on it.?
According to South Seneca Superintendent Steve Zielinski there is good reason for that.
The state’s interactive dashboard for school districts around New York shows that South Seneca’s overall graduation rate is 90 percent, which is good. It outpaces the state average by about seven percentage points. Even students that are considered economically disadvantaged in South Seneca have a positive graduation rate of 81 percent.
Zielinski said that there is a “small school” element at play here, though, which warrants discussion. “All the statewide rates are reported as percentages, which is logical but not very relevant to schools who have class sizes around 50 like South Seneca,” Zeilinski explained. “Fifty kids in a senior class means that each single student represents 2 percent, so a few kids either counted or not counted can swing the percentages dramatically.”
While larger schools in New York use data to evaluate trends, Zielinski said it is not utilized in that way in South Seneca.
There is another wrinkle in the data that can be a challenge for small districts like South Seneca. It has to do with the way the data is collected. “The way the state must collect that data requires that there are strict rules for who gets counted and who doesn’t,” he said. “For rural schools that serve a significant transient population, where a kid might be in a school for a few months at a time before moving again, this means that we always see students counted in our data that we hardly got to know at all.”
Zielinski said that a 16- or 17-year-old who moves temporarily to the district and enrolls at the school to see if they can take one last shot at a diploma but then gives up gets counted in their data. It happens a couple times almost every year, he explained.
“It’s often the case that these students also present with special needs, so they might go straight into a special circumstance, or a BOCES program. This wouldn’t touch the percentages of a larger school but might drive our number down by two or four points.”
Here is another problem: TASC credentialed students are not viewed as successes in the data. This is the diploma that used to be known as a GED. “[It’s] recognized as a high school equivalency credential but doesn’t count on the graduation rate,” Zielinski said. “We consider these students to be ultimately successful, but they look like ‘failures’ in the data. The same is true for those who don’t make it in four years but keep at it until they ultimately get their credential later, and that’s a significant number for us.”
He said it is good that five- and six-year data is being reported now in the collection, because a growing number of students do persevere and graduate.
“For our hypothetical 50, it might be true that three or four drop out, and another five pursue the TASC while a couple take more than four years,” Zielinski continued. “When you add in the transient one or two that always appear, it all narrows in toward that typical 80 percent number that shows up on our data. We don’t need the release of the data to tell us anything we haven’t already known. I certainly don’t mean to be casual about this—we work hard for 100 percent graduation rate. For each that don’t make it, we can document hundreds and hundreds of hours of work to prevent it from happening.”
What about the pandemic, though? What impact could that have on graduation rates? Zielinski said it’s hard to say at this point. “We might be tempted to think the granting of Regents exam exemptions could help the numbers go up,” he said. “The effect of poverty, though, is very real. These students carry multiple extra risk factors with them that a wealthier student does not.”