New York State Graduation Rates: Are We Sacrificing Student Achievement to Increase Graduation Rates?

A couple of years ago I was invited to a meeting of math teachers in a high school a few days after the Common Core Algebra 1 Regents exam. The teachers had graded the exam and constructed an error matrix, the most common incorrect answers. The teachers were examining their lesson plans and discussing how they could change their lesson plans to address the student errors. They were taking ownership of their practice. Too often parents, supervisors and teachers blame the exam or blame the students: the test was “bad,” the kids didn’t pay attention or study hard enough.

Rising graduation rates, like a rising stock market makes everybody happy, at least for a few moments.

Last week, the New York State Education Department (NYSED) released high school graduation rates for the 2012 cohort, students who entered 9th grade in 2012. The overall graduation rate increased to 79.4 percent, up 1.3 percentage points from 78.1 percent for the 2011 cohort. The 2012 cohort graduation rate is more than 12 percentage points higher than it was a decade earlier, when the 2002 cohort graduation rate was 67.2 percent.

State Ed has been nibbling away at graduation requirements for a decade. About ten years ago the State reduced the Comprehensive English Regents from two days to one – passing rates jumped 20%. The Global Studies Regents which covers work taught during the 9th and 10th will only cover the 10th grade in 2018. Students with disabilities can receive a local diploma with grades of 55, instead of 65 on regents exams, and in some circumstances a grade of 45 (See regulation here)

The State has also created Multiple Pathways in the 4 + 1 plan – students are required to pass four regents and an alternative assessment (See detailed explanation of Multiple Pathways here) instead of five regents exams.

In spite of the new Multiple Pathways parents of students with disabilities continue to strongly criticize the Regents and the State for removing the Regents Competency Test (RCT), a 10th grade level test that was available in lieu of the Regents. A majority of the students in the state graduated through the RCT and received a local diploma. At a forum on Long Island over 200 parents spoke passionately about the inadequacy of the current diploma options,

… on Feb. 7. Roughly 50 parents, teachers and advocates spoke, saying that the state does not offer the necessary testing options to ensure that young people with a variety of learning challenges can graduate from high school on time.

Emotions ran high throughout the evening and peaked when Ava Corbett, 14, of Plainview, took the microphone. She struggled to speak at first, but eventually got her words out.

Ava talked about how, as a special-needs student, her school performance plummeted after she entered high school. She started failing tests, hitting herself and fighting with her mother more often.

Her mother, Jessica, took over and continued the emotional appeal, her voice quivering with rage as she accused the members of the panel of perpetrating a “crime” against a generation of children.

There are no national standards for the type of test required for graduation from high school and the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) gives states even wider authority. Many states require the PARCC or Smarter Balance test, others the SAT or the ACT, others state-designed tests; however, very few states require exit exams. The feds require tests in English, Math and Science; however, tests are used for accountability purposes, not graduation requirements. (See state by state requirements here). New York State is one of the few states that has tests, the Regents exams, that are used both for accountability and high school graduation; the Regents exams are exit exams.

If you’re interested, check out recent New York State Regents exams:

January, 2017 Global Studies Regents:

June, 2016, Comprehensive English Regents::

January 2017, Algebra 1 (Common Core) Regents:

The Regents Examination have a long history in New York State,

The first high school examinations were held in June 1878. About one hundred institutions participated. The five studies examined on that first occasion were algebra, American history, elementary Latin, natural philosophy, and physical geography.

At one time a Regents was offered in “moral philosophy,” maybe we should reinstitute.  In the 1930’s students with the highest average Regents scores received scholarships. In the 1950’s the State offered a separate Regents Scholarship Test to all students in the state. In the 1990’s, after a few years of debate, the Regents began the phaseout of the multiple diplomas. The State offered Regents, Local, Commercial, Vocational and General diplomas. Passing grades on the Regents exams were reduced to 55 and the grade of 65 was slowly phased in. The “backup,” the Regents Competency Test was phased out, the State only offered a Regents diploma. As described above the State has created a safety net for students with disabilities and created alternative pathways.

Do the feds require an exit examination? Can New York State abandon or change the Regents Exam process?

No, the feds do not require an exit exam,  the State has almost total discretion over graduation requirements; however, on the NAEP test New York State falls into the lower percentiles. (41st on the 2015 4th grade math and 34th on 8th grade math), Massachusetts and Minnesota are at the top, nationally. While the graduation rate in New York State has been inching up in NAEP rankings among states New York has remained in the lower half.

While the State has tons of data, “visual data point” and a detailed Power Point of Graduation Rates, the State has failed to take ownership of the results, as the teachers in the school referenced above did.

Who are the students who fail to graduate? and, Why do they fail to graduate?

We know the student by race, ethnicity, gender, geography, by general ed, special education and English language learners, we don’t know why students fail to graduate.

* How many students fail to graduate, or drop out, are chronically absent (absent more than 20% of the time)?  The single unquestioning data point is attendance, students who are excessively absent fail to graduate in staggering numbers. Why are student’s absent?  and, what are schools/school districts doing to get the students in school on a regular basis?  Does the State provide a template for school districts to follow before removing a student from a cohort? (See New York City discharge regulations here)

* How many students pass three or four Regents, not five, and, what exams do they fail? How many of these students are SWDs and ELLs?  How many students fail to graduate because they fail subjects? Once again, who are they? How many dropouts are SIFE? (Students with Interrupted Formal Education)? ELLs entering school in the middle and high school years may not have time to acquire the skills required to pass regents exams.

* How many general education students attend school regularly, pass subjects, and can’t pass five Regents exams?

Based on the data, above, what policies can we institute?

In spite of the fact that New York State is at the top of the nation in per capita student spendin, the disparity among districts also leads the nation. We are a state of “have” and “have-not” districts. Graduation rates parallel funding, clearly we should continue to advocate for ending the funding disparity gap.

The parents at the Long Island forum were  angry, they’re children probably would not graduate. Should we lower Regents pass grades even more for SWDs? and ELLs?  Should we re-create another exam solely for SWDs and ELLs?  Will the result be increasing graduation rates, and, decreasing NAEP scores?

Or, should we follow the path of Massachusetts,

Massachusetts is widely seen as having the best school system in the country: Just 2 percent of its high-schoolers drop out, for example, and its students’ math and reading scores rank No. 1 nationally. It even performs toward the top on international education indices …     If the Bay State were a country, its students would rank ninth in the world in math. It ranks second only to Singapore in eighth-grade science.

[A former commissioner described changes] ‘…pay attention to early childhood education, give principals more freedom and ramp up teacher training … ‘”

The Education Reform Act of 1993 set the path and for twenty-five years Massachusetts has followed the same path. The road was rocky, early in the plan parents boycotted the tests, the curriculum was set at a high level and is taught consistently across the state and tested by a state designed test. The state has pumped considerable funding into the schools through an equitable funding formula that recognizes poverty..

kids should be held accountable to very high standards and we should test to make sure they meet those standards,” David Driscoll, the education commissioner from 1988 to 2007, said in an interview. “This became the basis of the Education Reform Act of 1993.”

That legislation established high academic standards with curriculum guidelines, developed tests to measure whether students were meeting the standards, tied high school graduation to a test and set a higher bar for teachers. Massachusetts also became one of the first states to look at whether the least privileged — minority students, low-income students and special education students — were meeting the grade.

Read a detailed discussion of the Massachusetts Miracle here.

You cannot roll back the clock twenty-five years, the Regents did establish the single Regents diploma however, New York State continued to stumble in the lower half of states. Tests are under attack in the state, from the Opt Out parents as well as some elected officials.

The Regents are faced with a daunting task: should they continue to find alternative pathways, basically satisfying parents and elected and also increasing graduation rates, or, attempt to emulate Massachusetts? Are higher graduation rates a reasonable tradeoff for lower NAEP scores?

Or, can New York State create it’s own path to higher graduation rates and higher academic achievement for all students?


5 responses to “New York State Graduation Rates: Are We Sacrificing Student Achievement to Increase Graduation Rates?

  1. I have been a teacher of science within the City for all of my career. Most of it was at a vocational high school, some of it was in a specialized high school. Speaking as a science teacher here, absence from class IS the single most important reason for failure. Of course I know of Maslow’s hierarchy. I have seen kids hungry, underdressed, without school supplies, etc. Nonetheless, schools have been able to overcome some of these effects. When a student is absent in a science (or math) class for a small period of time, THE CLASS MOVES FORWARD. Returning often subjects the returnee to entering a ‘foreign’ world. What they were learning is done, and they are likely in the middle of something new. That’s so difficult that most adults forget the experience. My first school had a squad that called the home of EVERY single absentee the morning of an absence. We had much success educationally because both parents and students knew that the school would not allow absence. No babysitting younger siblings, etc, were legit reasons for skipping school.

    There are achievements that kids must meet to earn a diploma. Cheapening those turns out an uneducated young adult with a worthless credential.

    Why society believes it appropriate to move students along by TIME instead of achievement, and allowing for no variability in the instructional time it allows to master a subject is beyond me. IF EACH CHILD IS UNIQUE, WHY IS THE TIME ALLOWED TO MASTER A SUBJECT UNIFORM? The answer is convenience, not individual achievement.

    To judge a system by its student progress and graduation rate is to judge by class, economic status, and other out-of-class factors, in addition to the classroom experience which may require extra time. If the desire is to have students achieve a worthwhile diploma, instead of manipulating the numbers, the government must provide a structure that meets the individual needs of its students. The payback will be worth the costs.


  2. From: Rob Bligh
    Date: Saturday, February 11, 2017
    To: NYT Letters
    Subject: Cheering Graduation Rates

    Take Care When Cheering Graduation Rates

    Everyone should be very careful when cheering for increased high school graduation rates (Graduation Rate in New York State Hits a New High: 79.4% (NYT Feb. 10, 2017). For educators whose continued employment is threatened in the name of “school reform,” there are two methods available to accomplish the appearance of the academic improvement demanded by some politicians and by all corporate school “reformers.”
    One is straight up test fraud. It has been tried in most states and the District of Columbia but it is fraught with the danger of getting caught. This danger is related to the trail of evidence left by the process of educator-conducted test fraud. Fraudulent graduation rates are different. They are much safer because they are much more difficult to detect and prove and their is very little motivation to do so. All it takes to graduate a student whose academic performance does not deserve a diploma is one or more decisions to issue a “pass” when an academic performance deserves a “fail.” Consider some recent history. In April of 2014 the U.S. Department of Education reported an increase in the national graduation rate. One month later, the same agency reported that the “nation’s high school seniors have shown no improvement in math and reading performance since 2009.” That is a mighty fishy combination.
    – Rob Bligh


  3. The pressure to increase graduation rates was going on in California in the 1980s and it never went away. To make it more difficult, California implemented a competency test students had to pass to prove they met a minimum proficiency in math and reading to graduate in addition to all the course requirements. It was set at 9th grade, one of the highest in the country for states that had competency-based tests. I read that under Governor G. W. Bush, the competency rate in Texas was set at 4th grade, one of the lowest in the country helping Bush boast during his first run for the White House about how he had increased high school graduation rates in Texas. What a con job that was. Liar, liar, pants on fire.

    But in California, that 9th-grade proficiency minimum led to night classes, tutoring and summer school classes all designed to help students pass that test so they could graduate on time and get the rate up. One class focused on how to game a test, not by cheating but by using specific tactics that studies show would help boost the score. These were test taking tactics that were legal.


  4. NYS is the only state in the USA that requires 5 examinations at the high school level to just get out with a diploma— forget any honors. New State used to have many many combinations of ways to graduate ; including general, commercial and regents. These alternatives were indeed whittled away, that was the first whittle, on the road to greater and greater test reliant– one size fits all education. And the only result was that graduation rates fell. After piling test upon test for a decade while graduation rates plummeted… folks began to realize that we were testing ourselves out of a workforce. What in fact is high school graduation, one might ask. Do all high school graduates need to qualify for Harvard? Or are we truly failing students when they are unable to get a job driving a bus or keeping municipal records. Do we really lower our standards by being flexible with a series of tests that are not given anywhere else but here? Are high school grads in New Jersey or Connecticut truly below our lofty standards? I applaud NYS high standards, but we should mistake alternatives to testing to lowering of standards.


  5. In Finland, just as in Israel, students are identified as to their academic and ore commericial or Blue collar potential. Once identified they are tracked at all of their various school grades to fit that identification. The only recourse that parents have is to protest and sometimes have to retain a lawyer to get a reversal of tracking judgement. My Finland friend tells me that Finnish educators like this arrangement, because it cuts down significantly on classroom management issues, which we all know often stem from disinterested students. after all my years in American education, I can see the merits of such a system. My qualms would be as to the availability of a job for a student who has been tracked for cheffing, or construction work or plumbing or electrician or the various civil service areas.


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