There are some glimmers of progress. The percentage of Philadelphia high school graduates who enroll in college immediately after finishing school is on the rise, from 40 percent in 2008 to 44 percent last year.
"It's low, but I definitely think we're moving in the right direction," said Fran Newberg, the District's deputy for accountability and technology
Looked at another way, though, it is evident that the "pipeline" running from the city's public schools on to college remains broken. Only 36 percent of students who began 9th grade in fall 2005 – the high school class of 2009 – made it to any form of postsecondary education within six years.
At Philadelphia's neighborhood schools, that figure drops to 25 percent, compared to 80 percent for the District's special admission schools.
And a closer look at the performance of individual schools in an analysis conducted by the Notebook shows just how pronounced the disparities are among Philadelphia's high schools.
At Julia R. Masterman High, one of the city's elite special admission schools, 97 percent of entering 9th graders in 2005 made it to college, compared to only 11 percent from Kensington Culinary, one of the city's struggling neighborhood schools.
"The starkness of that change when you look down the list is breathtaking, and it's unacceptable," said Lori Shorr, the city's chief education officer and an advisor to the District, after reviewing the school-by-school results.
"I don't think we could be possibly be more stratified than we are right now."
Treasure trove of data
The new data come via the School District from the National Student Clearinghouse, which works with over 3,300 colleges and universities, enrolling over 96 percent of students in U.S. public and private institutions, to track students' postsecondary education patterns. College enrollment figures include four-year and two-year institutions as well as some less-than-two-year institutions.
This year, for the first time, the District's Office of Accountability agreed to share with the Notebook detailed NSC college enrollment records to allow for the analysis presented in this edition.
Besides the disparities in college-going rates between different types of high schools, there are also stark differences when the results are broken out by the students' race and gender. Overall, males from the class of 2009 lagged females by 13 percentage points in college enrollment, the data show.
What the recently obtained information does not provide is a detailed look at how students fared after they got to college.
Last year, the District released NSC data showing that only 10 percent of Philadelphia public school students who entered 9th grade in 1999 went on to earn two- or four-year college degrees within a 10-year span. In that earlier cohort, only a minority of students who started college wound up earning a degree.
But an updated version of that analysis was not available this year.
The newly released data also do not include information on whether students who make it to college are taking credit-bearing classes or progressing towards a degree.
A preliminary analysis by the Notebook on whether students were staying in college did, however, show some evidence of persistence.
Looking citywide at the students who started out in the high school class of 2009, 80 percent of those who graduated high school and enrolled right away in college made it back for a second year. Neighborhood high school students did not lag by much here; 77 percent of those who enrolled directly in college came back for a second year.
Charter school success
The enrollment data show that Philadelphia's charter schools sent 48 percent of their 2005 cohort of first-time 9th graders to college, a rate markedly higher than both Philadelphia's neighborhood high schools and its citywide admission schools.
That figure does not include some recently established charters who have demonstrated success but did not have a 9th grade class in 2005.
"If [charters] truly were open enrollment, they are definitely doing something we need to explore and understand and study," said the District's Newberg.
In recent years, postsecondary performance of students has emerged as an increasingly important measure of high schools' success. The District now factors high schools' college-going rates into schools' ratings on its School Performance Index.
With growing skepticism about the meaning of scores on high-stakes standardized tests, the college enrollment data from the National Student Clearinghouse offer a new means of assessing how high schools are doing – a useful tool for policymakers and parents alike as the District continues its move towards a portfolio model.
The data presented in this edition were made available courtesy of the School District of Philadelphia's Office of Accountability and Assessment. The Notebook would like to offer a special thanks to Rosemary Hughes and Yijing Huang of that office for their extensive support. Special thanks to Michelle Schmitt, who conducted the Notebook's analysis. Thanks to OpenDataPhilly for financial support and for sponsoring the Open Data Race in fall 2011, which was a catalyst for this project. For more details on the data, see the school-by-scool breakdown.