With HS graduation rate up, Bloomberg touts long-term gains

In an effort to burnish his education legacy before leaving office, Mayor Bloomberg took the unusual step Wednesday of announcing the city’s 2013 high-school graduation rate – which he said rose to a record high of 66 percent – a full six months before the state officially releases those figures.

The rate touted by the mayor reflects students who graduated this August after four years. As usual, the rate among students who graduated by June was lower, at 61.3 percent – though that rate still represents a 32 percent increase since 2005.

The latest August graduation rate is 1.3 percentage points higher than in 2012, when the rate declined for the first time under Bloomberg. The mayor said 2013’s preliminary graduation rate – which state officials said they verified – is the city’s highest since it adopted its current calculation method in 2005.

According to the city’s figures, black and Hispanic students’ graduation rates both climbed since last year, though each group still lags roughly 20 percentage points behind the rates of white and Asian students. Students with disabilities saw their graduation rate rise 7 points over last year’s, while the rate for English language learners slipped by nearly 2 points.

While acknowledging the lingering gaps between student groups, Bloomberg said that since he took office in 2001 fewer students across the board are dropping out of high school and more are graduating prepared for college, even as diploma standards have become more demanding.

He attributed these gains to his get-tough education policies, including closing low-performing schools and opening new small ones, which he said has made New York’s school system a national model.

“What is clear is that for the 12 years we’ve been doing this, the results are – by any national standards – outstanding,” Bloomberg said. “We really have become the poster child.”

With less than a month left before Bloomberg hands over his post to Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio, who has promised to reverse many of this administration’s signature school policies, Bloomberg has been vigorously defending those policies.

On Tuesday, he announced that many more students took Advanced Placement exams and the SAT than when he took office.

On Wednesday, when asked why he decided to reveal the city’s preliminary graduation rates half a year before the state releases the official figures next June, Bloomberg replied, “We’re not going to be here” at that time, adding that the public has a right to know now “what has been accomplished and what has not been accomplished.”

At a separate press conference Wednesday, de Blasio said he thought it was appropriate for the current mayor to announce the graduation results before leaving office.

“Clearly, the work done by the Bloomberg administration – the good, the bad, the in-between – that’s all on their account and that’s fair and that’s right,” he said.

In the last few years, both the city and state have made it more challenging to earn a diploma.

Students must now score a 65 out of 100 on all five Regents exams, since the so-called local diploma that allowed a score of 55 on some tests has been eliminated for most students. And students cannot hastily earn last-minute course credits, since a process that allowed them to do so online has been restricted.

With those tougher standards in place last year, the city’s June graduation rate fell half a point, to 60.4. But this year, the rate is up nearly a point from last year, which city officials said Wednesday confirmed their prediction that students would adapt and rise to meet the higher standards.

Still, the graduation rate could soon take another hit when the Regents exams are overhauled in the coming years to assess the more demanding Common Core standards. When the grade 3-8 state tests were tied to those standards this year, scores plunged, with less than a third of students passing the English and math exams.

But Bloomberg said he did not expect the graduation rate to fall for that reason, citing states that had adopted tougher standards and eventually saw learning gains.

“When you raise the standards,” he said, “you have to teach harder, you have to work harder.”

Geoff Decker contributed reporting.