This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Four-year high school graduation rates have ticked up in Philadelphia for the third straight year, and scores on a key standardized test, the PSSA/Keystones, have improved as well.
Among students who entered 9th grade in the District in 2013-14, 67 percent graduated in four years, a 1-percentage-point increase from the year before.
The School District of Philadelphia held a pep rally Thursday at Lincoln High School to celebrate, and Mayor Kenney promised more progress when the city takes over control of the District – planned for 2018-19 – and pledged to close an anticipated $900 million funding gap over the next five years.
School officials said the test results reflect the District’s strategic focus on college and career readiness and the hard work being put in by students, families, teachers, and principals.
Lincoln High, the site of the celebration, posted a significant increase in its graduation rate from 66 percent to 79 percent.
Districtwide, 31 high schools improved their graduation rates. Some of the biggest gains were recorded at Dobbins Career & Technical School, which improved from 83 percent to 96 percent, and Strawberry Mansion, where the rate increased from 36 percent to 52 percent.
The school-by-school data shows huge gaps between graduation rates at special admission schools, most of which have rates above 90 percent, and larger neighborhood high schools such as Bartram, Overbrook and Martin Luther King, most of which have graduation rates below 60 percent.
“Increased graduation rates mean more Philadelphia high school students are on the path to successfully completing high school with the skills needed to enter college or the workforce,” said Superintendent William Hite in a statement.
He said that investments in 9th-grade academies, better Advanced Placement opportunities, and greater access to higher-performing schools should lead to more improvements.
The 67 percent figure includes all students, including those in what the District calls the Opportunity Network, made up of “second chance” schools for students who have had trouble making it in more traditional settings. The District also released that graduation rate that includes only those who remained in traditional schools – 78 percent, an increase of 4 percentage points.
Test scores also inch up
Students in all grades who took the Keystone Algebra I, Biology, and Literature tests this year did better than students did the year before.
• Algebra I proficient/advanced rates increased from 19 to 21 percent.
• Biology proficient/advanced rates increased from 23 to 29 percent.
• Literature proficient/advanced rates increased from 38 to 43 percent.
At the advanced level alone, biology results rose from 7 to 9 percent, and literature from 2 to 4 percent.
Fewer students had scores at the lowest level (below basic) in algebra and biology, though the numbers are still significant. Below-basic rates dropped from 38 percent to 36 percent in algebra, and from 48 to 40 percent in biology.
Those improvements “are just some of the many steps we are taking to make our school community a welcoming environment so that students are not only college- and career-ready, but life-ready as well,” said Lincoln High principal Jack Nelson.
Kenney said the improvements came despite sharp budget cuts while this year’s seniors have been in high school.
“Over the last several years, the District has had to make hundreds of millions in cuts,” Kenney said. “And while they persevered through those cuts, we cannot expect Dr. Hite, our teachers, or our students to take the incremental progress we’ve seen over the three years and expand it into greater success while enduring another cycle of cuts.”
Kenney said he is committed to meeting the District’s impending deficit, which is expected to reach $900 million by 2022, and is pushing to return the District to local control by abolishing the School Reform Commission.
“I know that with the full support of the city’s departments behind the School District, we can increase that graduation rate even more and get our graduating seniors off to college or career,” Kenney said.
Long-term, the District’s goal is that every student will graduate ready for college or a career. Toward that end, the District has established these initiatives:
• Setting up 9th-grade academies focused on career and college readiness to ensure students are attending school, engaged in their courses, and preparing themselves to move on to 10th grade.
• Offering PSAT and SAT for every high school student, with 38,365 District high school students taking the SAT, Preliminary SAT (PSAT)/National Merit Qualifying Test, and PSAT 8/9 for free.
• Providing Outward Bound experience for all incoming 9th-graders that focuses on character, leadership, and service and gives students critical thinking skills.
• Increasing Advanced Placement opportunities for students.
• Opening two new high schools: Vaux Big Picture High School and Parkway Center City Middle College.
• Increasing access for all students to higher-performing schools and removing barriers so that more students can choose to attend career and technical education high schools.
• Establishing post-graduation plans for all high school students to help them go to college or find jobs.
• Partnering with the city’s Commerce Department to connect with businesses, so they can offer high-quality, work-based experiences and build the skills needed to compete in the knowledge economy.
• Expanding alternative school options to give more students a second chance and get them on the path to a high school diploma.
• Focusing on improved attendance so students stay on track to graduate.