New Report Re-examines Definition of “At-Risk” | New Visions for Public Schools

New Report Re-examines Definition of “At-Risk”

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Top of mind for teachers and principals, especially as the end of the school year approaches, are those 12th grade students at-risk of not graduating -- students who have failed one or more required Regents exams or who are missing the credits they need.

But while the student who is shy a credit or two and the student who failed a Regents exam are relatively easy to identify, are there other students whose "riskiness" is not so obvious? How does "at-riskness" develop over time? How can principals, teachers, counselors and others identify at-risk students early enough to make a difference?

These are some of the questions driving a new report by a team of researchers at New Visions. Following up on our recent report that describes our metric for tracking student performance, the new report deepens our understanding of student risk. The authors call for a more sophisticated way of characterizing student risk, one that acknowledges the interplay between school policies (credit recovery policies, academic programming, instructional decisions) and student risk.

What does all of this mean for New York City schools?

Consider this: nearly three-fourths of city graduates who enter CUNY's community colleges require remediation in reading, writing or math. In other words, only 25 percent of incoming CUNY students are fully prepared for the rigors of college. Our high schools need to do a better job of equipping students with the skills and content knowledge they need to be successful in postsecondary pursuits, whether in a two- or four-year college or career and technical program.

To help our schools keep track of how well they are doing preparing students for graduation, New Visions designed a tool that tracks student achievement against a series of benchmarks (such as high attendance, steady credit accumulation, passage of Regents exams, and more) that visualizes student performance using a color-coded system: blue for on track for college; green for on-track to graduate; yellow for almost on-track and red for off-track.

Our prinicpals have found the tool invaluable for identifying at risk students, but the tool is limited in that it only provides a moment-in-time snapshot. We recognized a need to visualize student achievement not only as a moment-in-time accumulation of achievement (a student's "stock") but also as the variation of a student's stock over time (what we call "flow.")

Here's what it looks like. The map above, which we call a "progress to graduation map," charts the flow of students through the four performance categories across eight semesters of high school.

Some noticeable patterns: a portion of this school's on-track students (green) flow upwards into the college-ready category (blue) at the end of the second semester. At the same time, however, an even greater portion of on-track students dip down into the almost on-track category (yellow). Similar patterns emerge at the end of every semester.

Our hope is that schools can begin to use this tool to identify and diagnose negative trends early enough in a student's trajectory to raise his or her achievement.

We're indebted to data visualization gurus Sarah Slobin and Andrew Garcia Phillips for their great work creating these maps.

Be sure to check out our blog for further posts on this exciting new work, including a Q&A with Susan Fairchild, New Visions director of program analysis and applied research.