“Mix It Up” at Lunch Day at Mary Hooker School

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“How would it be if there were no rules?,” one female student asked at the lunch table.

A male student cautiously responded with, “crazy;” and another yelled, “awesome!”

For “Mix It Up” at Lunch Day two weeks ago on October 28, the rules changed at Environmental Sciences Magnet School (ESM) at Mary Hooker in Hartford’s “Behind the Rocks” neighborhood. Rather than sitting with the usual group during lunchtime, students were asked to try sitting with students they don’t usually interact with each day, or maybe ever.

In the past, a number of city and suburban schools around Connecticut have also participated in the event.  This year, “Mix It Up” Day was supported locally by the Sheff Movement, a coalition for quality integrated education for all kids. In collaboration with the Sheff Movement, a handful of other interdistrict magnet schools also participated in the “Mix It Up” Day in the Hartford area.

As part of their mission to reduce racial, ethnic, and economic isolation, these magnet schools are thinking about how their students interact with each other. While the goals of desegregation are defined numerically for magnet schools, these activities are addressing the more qualitative aspects of diverse schools.

Are kids interacting across racial, ethnic, and economic lines? Do racial, ethnic, economic, and gender groups have equal status in these schools? Does the school’s academic program support and include students in equitable ways?


So at the invitation of the school administration, I visited Mary Hooker for two lunch waves and saw “Mix It Up” Day happening in person. The idea to hold a “Mix It Up” day has been a longstanding effort of the Teaching Tolerance Project (Southern Poverty Law Center).

I observed two lunch groups (grades 3-4 & 5-6) participating in “Mix It Up” Day. Students entered the lunch room with Pharrell’s song “Happy” playing on the speaker system, then staff asked the students to sit at tables by birthday month, rather than the usual crew. The different colored balloons at each table corresponded to different months in the year. (See photo below) Some kids weren’t too bothered. Others were a bit annoyed.

ESM Mary Hooker CafeESM School at Mary Hooker Cafeteria on “Mix it Up” Day

Once they were at the tables, students had a handful of questions in a bucket that they could choose and ask of each other. These were icebreaker questions to get to know each other. Some were funny, others more serious.

Questions ranged widely and included, “If you could be an animal, which would you be?” Two boys answered “dog” and another said a mythical creature that I’ve never heard.

Another question was, “What is your favorite sports team?

One sixth grade boy replied, “Dallas Cowboys.”

I replied, “I’m sorry, man.”

Not exactly answering the question, another boy said, “I like sports.”

The last student at the table said, “I don’t like sports.”

photo(6)Box of Icebreaker Questions for Mix It Up Day

Moving around the lunch room, I asked a few students, “Do you know the other students here at this table?” They mostly responded, “no.”

But some kids managed to sit next to friends, as I learned from other kids at the table that told on them. According to a few boys at a table, two girls that were best friends managed to sit next to each other at their table. (The girls denied they were best friends though.)

Judging by the awkward looks and the kids randomly seated by race, ethnicity, and gender, these seating arrangements were legitimately new. The most interesting response to whether they knew the randomly assigned students at their table was, “I know who they were, but never talked to them.”

The issue is straightforward: kids form cliques and groups in school and these groups often overlap with racial, ethnic, class, and/or gender affiliation. Students, educators, and parents have noted this phenomenon and many have wondered whether it represents exclusion or positive group affiliation. In 1997, Beverly Daniel Tatum, who is the current President of Spelman College, questioned in her book, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together In The Cafeteria? 

In many ways, I don’t know that we’re any closer to confronting the issue even if we’re willing to ask Tatum’s question. Some places don’t even see this as a problem, and maybe it isn’t for some.

Interestingly, researchers from Stanford University recently reported findings from their study showing that the way adults structure school impacts how student cliques form. Schools are taking notice. In response, a number of local schools, like ESM School at Mary Hooker, are building positive climate that is inclusive of all kids.

How do the schools you attend or work in confront racial, ethnic, gender and economic inclusion in and outside the classroom? Are these issues even addressed at all?

Share your thoughts in the comments!


Visualizing Diversity in Connecticut School Choice Programs

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Today Elizabeth Horton Sheff and Jim Boucher wrote an op-ed entitled, “State Must Do More to Ensure Education Equity” in the CT Mirror. They recommend interdistrict magnet schools and Open Choice as the main school choice programs that the state should use to continue school desegregation efforts in the Hartford area. As you can see from the chart below, many of the state’s magnet schools have created numerically diverse schools by race, ethnicity, and a (limited) measure of socioeconomic status.

Much less attention has been paid to whether or not the other school choice programs in CT, such as charter and technical schools, are racially and economically diverse. These schools are mentioned in the Sheff agreement as possible ways to create diverse schools in addition to magnet schools and Open Choice. Nevertheless, the State continues to expand many segregated charter schools in Hartford and other places around the state even though the State of CT has been ordered by the Court to desegregate public schools (at least in the Hartford area).

CT Voices for Children’s report “Choice Watch” (Cotto and Feder 2014) demonstrated that most of the state’s publicly funded, privately managed charter schools are hyper-segregated by race and ethnicity, but not necessarily by free and reduced priced meal eligibility. (FRPM is a very rough indicator of family income.)

In comparison, the majority of the state’s technical high schools and interdistrict magnet schools could be considered numerically desegregated by race and ethnicity according to the older Sheff desegregation standard. (There is now an updated desegregation standard for Sheff schools in the Hartford area.)

With the exception of technical schools, both charter schools and interdistrict magnet schools are required to reduce racial, ethnic, and economic isolation. This requirement for school choice programs is not a suggestion, it’s Connecticut law.

For example, Connecticut General Statutes Section 10-66bb states: “(h) The Commissioner of Education may at any time place a charter school on probation if (1) the school has failed to (A) adequately demonstrate student progress, as determined by the commissioner, (B) comply with the terms of its charter or with applicable laws and regulations, (C) achieve measurable progress in reducing racial, ethnic and economic isolation…”

Sometimes numbers are helpful to explain an issue, but a picture can be better. Over the past few months, Trinity college students, faculty, and community partners have been working on creating data visualizations for social data such as school demographic and location info.

Below is one example of our work (Veronica Armendariz, Trinity ’16 & R.Cotto). The chart shows all charter (blue), technical (green), and interdistrict magnet (red) schools in CT in 2011-12. You can place your cursor over each dot to see the school name and % of children of color (racial/ethnic minority) and % eligible for free/reduced price meals.

The interdistrict magnet schools are clustered in the 50% to 75% children of color range. The percentage of children eligible for FRPM follows closely in many instances.

Interdistrict magnet schools have state or state agency conducted lotteries, desegregation standards, transportation grants for out of district students, and other incentives to remain diverse. In the case of magnet schools, state policy and public funds help maintain numerically diverse schools.

More than half of the state’s charter schools enroll nearly all children of color. However, the schools have much lower percentages of children eligible for FRPM. This suggests that these charter schools are hyper-segregated by race/ethnicity, but enrolling a larger share of middle and working class Black and/or Latino children when compared to their local school districts.

Charter schools have rules to reduce racial, ethnic, and economic isolation, but little to no State enforcement of this rule in the form of reduced operating grants, probation, or losing the state charter for not complying, and only in-district students are guaranteed transportation by the local school district. (Towns/districts can provide transportation for students going to a charter school in another town if they select to do that.) In this case, state policy and public funds help maintain mostly segregated schools, largely reinforcing the segregated housing/school lines of the last 100 years.

Note: There are exceptions to this trend and I’ll talk about that in a later post.

Technical schools are very spread out over this scatterplot. Although they are located in cities, suburbs, and rural towns, they are more difficult to categorize. Prince Tech (Hartford) and Bullard Havens (Bridgeport) have more than 90% children of color, which is close to the district average. But Windham Tech is about 67% white children, although Windham Public Schools is more than 67% Latino.

Technical schools are a “colorblind” form of school choice that also requires an application to attend. They are supposed to be “regional” schools to a certain extent and the law requires that districts provide transportation to the schools. The State Board of Education oversees technical high schools, but there are no requirements towards diversity of the student body. So sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t, and other times, they become enclaves for more advantaged students, like in Windham.

Notice anything unusual or interesting in the data visualization? Share or discuss in the comments section.

American Identity

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Published in the Perspectives on Politics Journal in March of 2007 political scientists run empirical tests on Samuel Huntington’s claims the number, concentration, linguistic homogeneity and other unique characteristics of Hispanic immigration will erode the American identity and culture. Huntington’s deepest worry is a failure of hispanic immigrants to adopt an American patriotism that coincides with every citizen in the United States. However, Jack Citrin and associates report an intense aspect of patriotism in Hispanics as years move forward . Their studies find that a even when Hispanics chose to identify themselves as a “hyphenated” Americans “they do not collide with patriotism” but they are “quite compatible with a strong love of the country.” (Citrin, 44)

In my experience at the Hartford Adult Education center last Wednesday night I was fortunate enough to experience Citrin’s reports for my own eyes.

“So would you both agree that the coined “”American Dream”” is honest and true for every immigrant who comes to America legally with a purpose to work hard?” Both Carlos, who migrated from Honduras to Los Angeles in 1992, and Winona, who migrated to United States from the Dominican Republic. They both were adamant about becoming American, receiving education, working hard, one in a manufacturing company and Carlos working in construction demolition man. Both have aspirations to communicate more effectively with their employers and hopefully take full advantage of their time in the United States through education.

Winona, specifically, finds the education system in the United States as an endless track to opportunity as compared to the Dominican Republic . She recalls as a child having to pay fees for education as a child even to sit down within a school. She mentions such a large concentration of poverty and weakness there that acts as a prison to those who are born in to the situation. As a child she was barred form the opportunity to learn and that is the last thing she ever wanted for her own daughter. Despite Winona’s intense appreciation for her movement to the United States I was extremely surprised when she voluntarily expressed her views on our current immigration system as not strictly enforced enough. She justifies her “close the door behind me” thought in terms of our nations security. She referenced specifically to 9/11 and we then continued to express both our views on whether or not a strict border may enhance our feeling of national security.

I was consistently impressed with both Winona’s motivation to learn when she asked about my views of controlling the border.  I answered he questions with some the theories we spoke about in class such as how a migration crisis can very well be only smoke show created by political actors to find a scapegoat for negative times. Winona’s intrigue and intelligence leads me to believe that our country’s potential for advancement from recruiting talent from other areas around the world is endless.

However, I could not help but chastise myself by thinking this way. Is it moral for the United States to encourage bright talent to leave their homeland, rather than providing aid to a country in need to be rescused by a corruptive or authoritarian power. Carlos’ incentive to leave Honduras, and come to the United States in 1992, provides an example in which not only the U.S may have a had an ethical responsibility to provide aid to a country in need, but also may be responsible for a corruptive government in Honduras.

“El Violencio”, Carlos explained to me.  I was taken back by Carlos when he told me his migration in to the midst of the L.A Riots in 1992 provided him a safe haven as compared to his time in Honduras.
“Kids would die daily in the streets. The drugs and cocaine……You know Hugo? Hugo Chavez? He controls the streets and sends large amounts of drugs to Honduras to be sold all over the world.”

His story of migration and appreciation of a safe haven in the Los Angeles as an immigrant in the early 90’s gives me an alternate perspective of Central America. We can ever assume that we fully understand why a Hispanic Immigrant would risk even death to cross the border, because we have never seen the type of danger they saw daily within their homeland.

Revisiting Connecticut Charter School Enrollment

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Last June, the Connecticut State Board of Education approved increases in enrollment at new and existing charter schools – from 7,132 students in 2013-14 to 8,183 students in 2014-15, a proposed increase of 1,051 students. But the final enrollment numbers changed a bit in the last several months because the State Board of Education changed the final numbers twice in the last several months. The proposed number of students that will be enrolled in state charter schools is slightly lower that what was planned in June, however the increase from 2014 to 2015 is still one of the largest in the last decade.

First, the State Board of Education approved a resolution to expand charter school enrollments on June 4. (The link has the document) The enrollment proposed for state charter schools would have been 8,183 students.

The State Board approved increases for many, but not all, state charter schools in June. The Board expanded enrollment at 13 out of 18 charter schools, 4 kept the same enrollment, and one charter school, Trailblazers Academy in Stamford, will have lower student enrollment. Many of these enrollment increases were approved through a Board waiver to the enrollment cap in Connecticut’s charter law.

In short, the State Board of Education waived size requirements so that these charter schools could have student enrollments that are larger than state law typically allows. The State’s reasoning, based on a fairly recent part of Connecticut’s charter school law (in the application section), was that their overall achievement test results were better than the town/city school districts overall achievement test results in which the charters are located. (This is an incredibly flawed policy and I’ll take this up later in a separate post.)

Things can change quickly though. In June and July, Jumoke/FUSE charter management corporation faced a growing list of allegations and revelations that has led to FBI investigation.

With the rapid rise and demise of the Jumoke/Family Urban Schools of Excellence (FUSE) private charter management corporation, the proposed Booker T. Washington Academy (BTWA) charter school in New Haven submitted a revised enrollment and management plan to the State BoE. Initially, the State approved a plan for the now defunct Jumoke/FUSE to manage Booker T. Washington Academy charter school.

The State Board of Education approved the new plan and a new management corporation for BTWA in an early August resolution. The Board also reduced the enrollment to open next year with 120 students rather than the 225 students that were first approved in June.

Interestingly, the original Jumoke Academy, formerly managed by Jumoke/FUSE, was placed on probation. But Jumoke Academy was still allowed to expand by 90 students. Jumoke was placed on probation because of its tangled relationship with Jumoke/FUSE.

So instead of the 8,183 students at charter schools in the upcoming school year that the Board approved in June, the total enrollment in early August stood at 8,078 students. So where did the remaining allocation for 105 students go that was supposed to go to Booker T. Washington with Jumoke/FUSE, but was cut out of the original number of 225 students?

Did the allocation end up as:

A. savings to taxpayers

B. reabsorbed into the State Department of Education budget

C. reallocated to other charter schools

Answer: C.

On August 11, 2014, the Connecticut Department of Education, “surveyed existing charter schools to assess interest in additional seats for the 2014-15 school year from the balance of 105 seats.” A number of charter schools answered the call and requested an increase in student enrollment.

In a telephone conference/meeting on August 21, 2014, the CT State Board of Education approved an expanded enrollment for these charter schools. Six state charter schools were approved to expand by a combined 99 students and one local charter was approved to expand by 1 additional student. Specifically, the CT State Board of Education approved the requests to enroll additional students for ’14-’15 at New Beginnings, Highville, Achievement First Bridgeport, Odyssey, Great Oaks, and Path Academy (OPP) state charter schools, and at Elm City Montessori, a local charter school.

(Note: According to the 8/21 meeting agenda posted in advance, the public was allowed to listen to the teleconference and the vote on the resolution through a speaker phone on the third floor of the CT SDE building.)

Source: Connecticut State Board of Education, 2014.

The chart below summarizes the enrollment changes at state charter schools for 2013-14 and the revised, approved enrollment for 2014-15 for each existing and new charter school. This chart combines enrollment information from the June and August resolutions from the State Board of Education.

You can put your cursor over each bar to see the change in enrollment from one year to the next. In the parentheses, I have indicated which schools’ enrollment have been revised and which charter management corporation they are, or were, affiliated with such as an (AF) for Achievement First.


The approved charter school enrollment for the 2014-15 school year now stands at 8,177 students, which is 5 students fewer than the 8,183 students originally planned in June. The approved enrollment is an increase of 1,045 students in Connecticut’s state charter schools from ’14 to ’15. This is the result of increased enrollment at existing charter schools and the creation of new charter schools. This increase in charter enrollment is one of the largest increases in the last decade.

What We Don’t Know About CT Graduation Rates: 5 Questions

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Recent reports about improved graduation rates could be great news if a larger portion of high school students in Connecticut are graduating better prepared for future adult and academic life. It might also be good news if it means that our state’s public schools are better prepared to serve our high school students.

As Mark Pazniokas writes, graduation rates in Connecticut have now become a political campaign talking point. But there are a number of things we still don’t know about these reported increases. So I have a number of questions.

Link to Question 1: What are the actual numbers of graduates in Connecticut’s schools, districts, and the entire state?

Link to Question 2: What are the actual numbers of students that count as transfers “in” and “out” of the graduation cohort (and in each category) in its new method of calculating graduation rates?

Link to Question 3: What is the impact of Connecticut’s 2010 law for gaining high school credits through online courses & online credit recovery programs?

Link to Question 4: What impact do interdistrict school choice programs have on graduation rates?

Link to Question 5: Are graduation rates becoming distorted measures now that they are being used for the “rating” and “ranking” of schools in Connecticut?

Click on the links above to go to my thoughts on each question or continue reading below.


Question 1: What are the actual numbers of graduates in Connecticut’s schools, districts, and the entire state?

A news release from the Governor’s Office and located on the State Department of Education’s website reported an increase in graduation rates, for a fourth consecutive year. The press release stated that 85.5% out of a cohort of 43,496 senior-class students in 2013 graduated in four years. This rate was compared to 84.8% out of 43,905 senior-class students in 2012.

CT SDE reports the percentage of students that are 4-year graduates and the total number of senior students in the 2013 cohort group for the State. You can view the public data for graduation rates by districts here and schools here.

However, these spreadsheets for district and school graduation rates don’t include the actual numbers of total students in the senior class or the actual number of students that graduated in four years or less in each district or school.

Knowing the actual number of graduates is important in order to verify how the CT State Department of Education arrived at their numbers for schools and districts. It’s like math teachers always told us, “Show your work.”

Here’s one example: If we calculate actual number of graduates using SDE’s numbers for the state graduation rate (85.5% graduation rate multiplied by 43,496 students = 37,189 students) there is an interesting result — there were fewer students in the senior class and fewer students that graduated from CT schools in 2013 compared to 2012.

According to CT SDE’s data, there were 42 fewer graduates in 2013 compared to 2012. This doesn’t change the fact that there was a reportedly higher graduation rate. Indeed, the size of the state’s school-age population may have peaked and is either level or getting smaller. That is part of the story about what’s happening with public school enrollment and graduation rates. All this just highlights the need to know actual numbers of students that the State used for the graduation rate calculations for schools, districts, and the whole state.

Connecticut (Reported) Graduation Rates and Actual Numbers of Students

Rate/Number 2010 2011 2012 2013
Graduation Rate 81.8% 82.7% 84.8% 85.5%
Total Number of Seniors in Cohort 44,461 45,221 43,905* 43,496
Number of Graduating Senior Students 36,369 37,398 37,231 37,189

Source: CT SDE Reports 2011-2014. *An earlier report from SDE lists the 2012 Cohort Count (N) as 43,883 students, but with the same graduation rate. This would mean that there were 37,213 graduates.

Interestingly, a Federal data site provides more information than the CT SDE spreadsheets. In fact, the Federal site reports the number of children in each adjusted cohort at the district and school level in addition to the graduation rate (2011-12).

Why doesn’t Connecticut provide a list of actual number of students graduating and number of students in each cohort? It seems a simple addition if it’s already available on the Federal website.

Question 2: What are the actual numbers of students that count as transfers “in” and “out” of the graduation cohort (and in each category) in its new method of calculating graduation rates?

Since 2009, Connecticut has used a new method of calculating graduation rates called a four-year “adjusted cohort graduation rate.” (ACGR), which was adopted by the National Governor’s Association. (NGA). (The NGA was one of the groups that helped impose the “common core state (national) standards.”) Put simply, the ACGR attempts to calculate the percentage of first-time ninth graders who graduate within four years or less with a regular high school diploma.

Kids come and go from public schools in the state for a variety of reasons. So the ACGR tries to “adjust” for high school students transferring “in” or “out” of their respective school or district cohorts. But there’s a big catch to this ACGR. The State (and districts following CT SDE rules) ultimately decides how each student that transfers “in” or “out” of a cohort will be categorized, or coded. Only the State Department of Education (or local administrators with access to this data) knows how each student is defined when they transfer “in” or “out” and how many students are in each category of transfer “in” or “out” each school, district, and the state. To its credit, SDE has a detailed explanation of how students count as a transfer either “in” or “out.”

But what are the actual numbers in each category? Why is it important to know?

The way students are coded as a transfer in or out of cohort matters. As Julian Vasquez Heilig, Associate Professor of Educational Policy and Planning at the University of Texas at Austin, points out on his site “Cloaking Inequity,” changes in how students are counted as transfers “in” or “out” can distort graduation rates.

For instance, if students that in reality “drop out” are categorized as “home school” transfer students, then the graduation rate looks better in the ACGR formula. In Connecticut, it would be helpful to see how students that attend alternative schools, or schools that aren’t officially “schools”, are counted in this formula, for instance.

We don’t know what the data shows about transfers “in” and “out” of student cohorts because it’s not being reported along with the graduation rates in CT. This information could help identify the trends happening with cohorts of high school students in our state. Transfer data could also help us answer the bigger question about why a greater percentage of students are reportedly graduating in four years. (i.e. more students transferring back into the graduation cohort or fewer students transferring out of the cohort.)

Note: My initial data request for the actual numbers of students in each transfer “in” and “out” category at the school, district, and state level over the last several years was denied by the Connecticut State Department of Education. You can click here to support this data request or add a comment.

Question 3: What is the impact of Connecticut’s 2010 law for gaining high school credits through online courses & online credit recovery programs?

In 2010, Connecticut changed the way Connecticut’s high school students could earn course credits. The “Act Concerning Education Reform in Connecticut,” (Public Act 10-111) allowed high school students to gain credits by taking online courses and/or participating in online credit recovery. This law arguably made obtaining high school credits easier, or at least offered a greater level of flexibility in terms of how students could get a course credit rather than going to class in a real school with classmates and a teacher(s).

In addition to making it easier for students to get credits online, this law also changed Connecticut education policy to conform to requirements of the “Race to the Top” federal grant program. For example, the law also started the requirement to use “multiple indicators of student academic growth” (often interpreted as standardized test results) into teacher evaluations in Connecticut. The state has yet to receive any “Race to the Top” money despite new spending on initiatives to conform to the grant requirements.

Three parts of the 2010 law are important to point out related to online courses and online credit recovery. Connecticut General Statutes Sec. 10-221a states:

“(f) Determination of eligible credits shall be at the discretion of the local or regional board of education, provided the primary focus of the curriculum of eligible credits corresponds directly to the subject matter of the specified course requirements. The local or regional board of education may permit a student to graduate during a period of expulsion pursuant to section 10-233d, if the board determines the student has satisfactorily completed the necessary credits pursuant to this section. The requirements of this section shall apply to any student requiring special education pursuant to section 10-76a, except when the planning and placement team for such student determines the requirement not to be appropriate. For purposes of this section, a credit shall consist of not less than the equivalent of a forty-minute class period for each school day of a school year except for a credit or part of a credit toward high school graduation earned (1) at an institution accredited by the Board of Regents for Higher Education or State Board of Education or regionally accredited; or (2) through on-line coursework that is in accordance with a policy adopted pursuant to subsection (g) of this section.” (Author’s emphasis on new language since 2010)

“(g)Only courses taken in grades nine through twelve, inclusive, shall satisfy this graduation requirement, except that a local or regional board of education may grant a student credit….toward meeting the high school graduation requirement upon the successful completion of on-line coursework, provided the local or regional board of education has adopted a policy in accordance with this subdivision for the granting of credit for on-line coursework. Such a policy shall ensure, at a minimum, that (A) the workload required by the on-line course is equivalent to that of a similar course taught in a traditional classroom setting, (B) the content is rigorous and aligned with curriculum guidelines approved by the State Board of Education, where appropriate, (C) the course engages students and has interactive components, which may include, but are not limited to, required interactions between students and their teachers, participation in on-line demonstrations, discussion boards or virtual labs, (D) the program of instruction for such on-line coursework is planned, ongoing and systematic, and (E) the courses are (i) taught by teachers who are certified in the state or another state and have received training on teaching in an on-line environment, or (ii) offered by institutions of higher education that are accredited by the Board of Regents for Higher Education or State Board of Education or regionally accredited.”

Public Act 10-111 also included a new section that required districts with a substantial portion of students not graduating on time, or ever, to provide an on-line credit recovery program. Sec. 10-223g for on-line credit recovery programs states,

“A local or regional board of education for a school district with a dropout rate of eight per cent or greater in the previous school year shall establish an on-line credit recovery program. Such program shall allow those students who are identified by certified personnel as in danger of failing to graduate to complete on-line coursework approved by the local or regional board of education for credit toward meeting the high school graduation requirement pursuant to section 10-221a. Each school in the school district shall designate, from among existing staff, an on-line learning coordinator who shall administer and coordinate the on-line credit recovery program pursuant to this section.” (Effective July 1, 2010)

These online courses and credit recovery programs could be a helpful way for students to learn new knowledge and skills, and obtain credits. They can also be a way to water down high school courses or shift more students with greater academic challenges into under-regulated on-line courses/credit recovery. Districts and schools doing the latter could boost graduation rates without providing the full array of professional support and learning opportunities that students should get and often get in well-resourced suburbs and schools.

Given that Boards of Education with lower graduation rates were required by the State to offer online credit recovery programs, the districts most likely impacted by this change in state law would be cities and inner-ring suburbs in CT. So the children most likely to be given online credit recovery programs, rather than real courses in a school with actual teachers and classmates, were also likely to be Black, Latino, and children from families that are low-income earners because these children make up large portions of the public school enrollments in the cities and inner-ring suburbs with traditionally lower graduation rates. These students were also more likely to be in under-resourced and racially/economically isolated school from the very beginning.

The CT Mirror examined this issue in their articles, “Schools Push Struggling Students Online” and “School Districts Paying Big Money for Online Programs” a few years back. The articles provided a very helpful picture of these online credit recovery programs that included a number of perspectives from students, administrators, and legislators.

The legitimacy of online courses/credit recovery is a bigger debate and one for another post. But there are other questions to ask to inform that debate. Are schools and districts keeping track of enrollment information about these programs? Which students are taking these credit recovery programs and online courses? How many times and under what supervision and direction? How do the online courses compare to the live classroom experience? Are they as academically challenging and socially engaging? Do all school districts in CT that allow online courses have a written, Board-adopted policy about them, as the law requires?

At the very least, it is important to understand that Connecticut’s laws on earning a credit for high school changed in 2010 to more easily allow online course/credit to count as a high school credit. It is also important to know how many students in Connecticut are now getting credits through online course and online credit recovery programs and how obtaining credits through these programs may be impacting graduation rates, if at all.

A recent press release from the City of Hartford attributed increased graduation rates to the increased use of online credit recovery programs. These online credit recovery and online courses are often called “blended” or “personalized” learning. In Hartford, they allow students to take a course that they did not pass at a later time as an online course multiple times until they “pass.”

So at least one large school district, required to offer online credit recovery by the 2010 state law, attributes increased graduation rates to this change in policy, as well as other initiatives. What about other cities and towns? What about the State of CT?

The best-case scenario is these online programs provide students with new ways to prepare for their future academic work and adult life. The worst-case scenario is that the students that need the most help in school and life are getting shortchanged in terms of academic preparation and learning of interpersonal skills to be productive, engaged, and responsible citizens. This often comes as a result of learning in a real classroom with other real students and real teacher(s), not online.

(Note: The administration’s press release touts improved graduation since 2010, which was same year when the new law that allowed students to earn credit from online courses & credit recovery programs became effective. The current administration assumed office in 2011.)

Question 4: What impact do interdistrict school choice programs have on graduation rates?

In the Hartford and New Haven region, there is a great deal of movement of students from school to school and district to district because of public school choice programs such as charter schools, interdistrict magnet schools, and the Open Choice program. When students leave schools assigned by neighborhood for school choice programs (or vice versa), how does that impact each school or district graduation rate, if at all?

It is possible that the Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate method advantages schools with controlled enrollment practices such as magnets and charters that have lotteries only for certain grades (not grades 10,11, or 12), enrollment caps set by the state, and other methods of (de)selecting students. Being able to see the actual numbers of transfers “in” and “out” of a school or district cohort would help answer a number of questions. (See question #2.)

In the State’s ACGR method, when students at magnet and charter schools transfer out, they are removed from their graduation cohort only if they are officially claimed by another school. Magnets and charters have the ability NOT to officially claim new students because of controlled enrollment rules. (See above) Local neighborhood schools may often be required to enroll and claim transfer students throughout the year if there is space in the school and regardless of the circumstances of the transfer.

That means the neighborhood, non-magnet/charter high schools such as Bulkeley in Hartford, Hillhouse in New Haven, or Central in Bridgeport are always at a disadvantage because they must accept all students that come to their doors when they have space, whether a student transferred out of a magnet, neighborhood, or private school, moved from another state or country, or returned from juvenile detention hall, to name a range of possibilities. The neighborhood, non-magnet/charter, often can’t refuse to accept a transfer because they are “open enrollment” school, so to speak.

Here is a hypothetical example to explain this issue when it comes to graduation rates:

Magnet School A is an interdistrict magnet school with 100 students that enter 9th grade. Over the next four years, 50 students transferred (under a variety of circumstances) out of Magnet School A in this group and were claimed by Local Neighborhood School B.

Magnet School A doesn’t accept new students after 9th grade for various reasons such as:

  • The school leadership is trying to build a certain school “culture.”
  • The State doesn’t require magnet seats to be filled in later grades through its lotteries.
  • The local school board doesn’t control enrollment at the interdistrict magnet school.

On commencement day, there are 50 happy graduates at Magnet School A. The State and Federal ACGR method calls this a 100% graduation rate even though the class started with 100 students in 9th grade and only graduated 50 students.

Local Neighborhood School B started with 100 students that entered the 9th grade. Over the next four years, 50 students transferred out to Adult Education Center and 50 new students transferred in from Magnet School A and were claimed by Local Neighborhood School B.

Local Neighborhood School B was required by the Superintendent to accept the 50 students from Magnet School A against objections from the School B Principal, who wanted to stabilize the enrollment and build a positive, familial culture at her school too.

On commencement day, there are 75 happy students from Local School B that graduate and get their high school diploma. According to the State and Federal method, there is a 50% graduation rate at Local Neighborhood School B.

Nevertheless, School B actually graduated 50 out of 100 students that originally came to the school in 9th grade; and on top of that, the school graduated 25 out of 50 that transferred in from Magnet School A. In the state’s formula, School B simply had 75 graduates and 75 “dropouts” or “non-graduates.”

Here’s how:

  1. Local Neighborhood School B claimed 50 transfer students from Magnet School A. 25 out of 50 students that transferred out of Magnet School A into Neighborhood School B graduated. The remaining 25 never returned to school after 11th grade, so they count as “drop outs” or “non-graduates.” (Note: We don’t know how or why these students left Magnet School A originally. We just know that they officially transferred “out” and were claimed as transfers “in” to School B.)
  2. The 50 students that transferred out of School B “in” to Adult Education Center also count as “drop outs” or “non-graduates” from Local Neighborhood School B, even though they or their parents may have (or not) signed paperwork choosing this option.

The State and Federal ACGR formula advantages schools that control which students can enroll, as well as certain types of transfers over others. For instance, students that transfer to private schools are taken out of a cohort (counted as transfers), while transfers to Adult Education Center continue to count against a school (counted as “dropouts” or “non-graduates”). Sure, this isn’t just a magnet/charter issue either. All types of districts and schools are careful about how students are counted as transfers in or out. Indeed, suburban districts also control their school enrollment by restricting housing/zoning, in addition to other methods.

But in school districts with extensive public school choice programs, it would be helpful to understand how student movement might complicate graduation rates and comparisons between schools. We need the transfer data to understand the issue better, but CT SDE will not release this information. As a result, the adjusted cohort graduation rate for schools and districts can’t ever be verified and examined independently of the State. Furthermore, it will be difficult to determine how school choice impacts the calculation of graduation rates without this information.

Question 5: Are graduation rates becoming distorted measures now that they are being used for the “rating” and “ranking” of schools in Connecticut?

In 2012, the Federal Department of Education waived parts of the No Child Left Behind Act for Connecticut. This “waiver” came with a number of conditions. One of the conditions, which Connecticut SDE volunteered, was using graduation rates as one part of a new system of ranking & rating high schools. You can see the rankings and method here. 

Does using graduation rates to rank and rate high schools (and, by extension, the people that attend and work in the schools) distort the measure? (See Campbell’s Law) We know distortion happens when we use standardized test results to rank and rate schools. But what about graduation rates?

The experience in Hartford, CT may help illustrate this problem. From 2007 – 2013, graduation rates in Hartford were used as a way to calculate bonus money awards for top administrators, including the Superintendent (in U.S. Dollars $).

So what happened with graduation rates? They went up! But how did it happen?

It’s unclear entirely. There were number of factors, including dedication and efforts from students, teachers, parents, and staff, as well as a number of new initiatives.

But it’s also clear that the graduation rate measure in Hartford became distorted. How?

HPS Central Office required schools to give students in any course no lower than a 55% for any quarter in a class. So if they earned a 40% one quarter, teachers were told to change the grade to a 55%.  The reason for changing grading practices has never been explained on or off the record. The HPS administration tacitly admitted the change in practice at Board committee meetings without providing a firm rationale for the change.

In fairness, there is a school of thought that believes that assigning students a 50% for a missing, incomplete, or poor assignment/performance is a fairer way of doing grades. By assigning a student a “50%” rather than a zero, the argument goes, teachers are being numerically fairer in the final calculation of a grade average.  How to assign grades and the process grading of students’ work is a huge and ongoing debate. But that is for another post.

This new method of assigning numerical grades in HPS high schools very likely boosted graduation rates because students could earn only a 75% in one quarter and pass a course with a “D-/60%” without ever showing up for three quarters. (55%+55%+55%+75%/4 = 60%)

Real Hartford did a story on this a few years ago, which includes the anonymous document from HPS that explains the new grading policy. It’s another story urging caution when attaching “rewards” and “punishments” to numeric indicators.


In the end, it’s important to understand how these numbers, such as graduation rates, are produced and get as much information before drawing conclusions about the data. The numbers could be a positive sign for students in Connecticut’s towns and cities, or they can present as many questions as answers. Changes in the numbers can also signal a change in a policy or condition of the schools, as well as inflation/deflation, rather than a sure sign of success or decline.

Providing source data could be an easy fix. Information such as number of graduates, number of children in a cohort, transfers “in” and “out” for each category, and graduation rates at the school and district level could easily be updated and added to its CEDaR or the Connecticut Open Data site in real time. In the end, accountability and transparency on data must also apply to all of Connecticut’s Departments, particularly when data points become campaign talking points.