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Key Findings: The Experiences of one New York City High School Cohort


By Douglas Ready, Thomas Hatch, Miya Warner & Elizabeth Chu


New York City made tremendous strides in high school graduation rates from 2000 to 2011, moving from about 50% graduating to more than 65% graduating. Despite improvements in educational opportunities and results across the city, many students continue to encounter individual challenges and structural barriers that impeded their social and academic development. For students on or near the path to college, advanced classes, clear benchmarks, and associated efforts, many of which are supported by philanthropy, to get and keep them “on-track,” serve as the support they need to make their way to high school graduation and on to college. However, far too many students find themselves on pathways that do not lead to college or productive careers.

Discussions about college and career readiness typically focus on high schools. Often lost, however, is the fact that students enter high school with dramatically different academic backgrounds, and whether students leave high school with the requisite skills is partly a function of their experiences in elementary and middle school. To explore this issue, the paper examines the kindergarten through college experiences of a single cohort of 77,501 New York City public high school students who entered ninth grade in 2005 and who hoped to graduate in 2009.



  • Only 2.7% of students who failed to meet the third grade English Language Arts (ELA) standard went on to meet or exceed the benchmark in eighth grade.  Only one in three of these students ultimately graduated from high school.
  • 91.3% of students who exceeded the ELA standard in third grade would meet or exceed the standard in eighth grade.  Almost 90% of these students graduated within four years.


  • Racial and ethnic disparities in academic outcomes were evident as early as third grade and persisted over time; some grew larger by eighth grade.
  • Students in the cohort attended elementary and middle schools that were racially and ethnically quite segregated; by high school, schools were less racially segregated but more academically stratified.
  • Black and Hispanic students are more likely to attend “high needs” schools than white or Asian students. One in three students who attended higher-needs schools for elementary, middle, and high school graduated within four years, compared to almost three of four students who attended no higher-needs schools.
  • Black students were significantly more likely to be suspended in middle school than white or Asian students.


The figure below indicates how strongly particular student attributes (or groups of attributes) are tied to on-time graduation. These findings closely mirror those reported by studies of other large urban districts, including Chicago and New York City.[1] Almost one-quarter of the disparities in graduation are explained solely by whether students accumulated 10 or more credits in ninth grade. Eighth-grade ELA and math test scores together explain roughly 15%. Ninth-grade absences and high school mobility are third and fourth in terms of their ties to four-year graduation rates. Other social/academic background characteristics, including race/ethnicity, gender, special education primary language status and LEP status, age, and free/reduced-price lunch (FRPL) status together explain less than 10% of the differences in four-year graduation, while ever being suspended during high school explains roughly 5%.


  • High school mathematics levels differed among students
    • Asian students advanced roughly two-fifths of a year further in math than their white counterparts, all else equal.
    • Black and Hispanic students both lagged behind their white peers by nearly half a year in math courses.
  • The level of preparation was associated with college persistence:
    • More than three of four graduates who completed Algebra 2 or beyond in high school remained in college after year one, compared to fewer than half of students who completed a less rigorous mathematics sequence.
    • 80% of students who passed at least one AP course persisted through one year of college, compared to roughly half of students who took no AP courses.


The next mayor faces significant challenges in improving our public education system. But many key positive steps have already been taken and the philanthropic community welcomes opportunities to support promising solutions. The new mayor will also have great opportunities. Several promising reforms are already occurring:

  • Common Core Learning Standards reflect more rigorous expectations for students
  • Small, non-selective schools showed promising results in improving ninth-grade credit accumulation
  • Recent DoE changes to the discipline code offer the possibility of significant reductions in suspensions.

Philanthropy stands ready to work with the next mayor to build on the work that has already been done and to improve the system so that it provides all students – in all corners of the city – with the kind of rigorous education that will prepare them for success in college and careers.


[1] The links between each attribute (or set of attributes) and four-year graduation were estimated separately (e.g., they are not adjusted for the other sets of attributes).