Statewide graduation rates tick up for most students, but not English learners

Fewer than one-quarter of the city’s 2013 high school graduates scored high enough on their Regents exams to be considered ready for college or a career, state education officials said today.

Across the state, nearly 75 percent of students who entered high school in 2009 graduated four years later, an improvement of almost one percentage point over last year. That improvement mirrored New York City’s, which saw its graduation rate increase from 60.4 percent to 61.3 percent—numbers that were first released by the Bloomberg administration last year.

Statewide, college and career readiness numbers also crept upward, but remained much lower. Just 37 percent of students across the state hit targets needed to be considered ready for college or a career. And while more students from almost every demographic group are graduating high school on time, a glaring exception is the state’s English language learners, who struggled for a second year to meet the state’s new graduation requirements.

Now required to pass five Regents exams with a score of 65 or higher, these students’ graduation rate dropped more than three percentage points since last year—from 34.3 percent to 31.4 percent—and nearly six percentage points since 2011. In New York City, where about one in seven students are classified as an English language learner, the two-year drop was even steeper, falling from 39.4 percent to 32.3 percent.

Advocates said they were disturbed by the downward trend for English learners, even if it was predictable. In 2011, the state did away with the less rigorous “local diploma,” which allowed students to graduate if they scored at least a 55 on the Regents exams.

“We feared that this was going to happen,” said Claire Sylvan, executive director of Internationals Network for Public Schools, which exclusively serves students who move to the United States with limited or no English language skills. Sylvan, who was in Albany for the Board of Regents meeting where the statistics were presented, said the results were “astounding” to see.

The presence of the local diploma, still available for students with disabilities, had helped prop up the city’s increased graduation rates for years.

“Raising standards and moving away from the local diploma was the right thing to do,” said Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch, noting the many groups of students who “rose to the challenge” of the higher standards.

Still, state education officials acknowledged the growing achievement gap, and said they were considering several changes to graduation requirements, include whether to give a different test to English language learners. The Regents were also planning to discuss ways give students more opportunities to graduate based on more than passing classes and standardized exams, including the creation of “pathways” that would put students on a career track starting in high school.

Officials also pointed out that once students progress past the English language learner classification, they graduate at a rate closer to the rest of the state, which State Education Commissioner John King said was proof that students could thrive if they’re given the right amount of academic support. Last year, “one-time ELL” students graduated at a 71 percent clip.

King used the announcement to rally support around the state’s implementation of the Common Core standards. Though some Regents exams were Common Core-aligned for the first time this year, students won’t need to pass those exams for graduation until the 2022 school year.

“Far too many students, even if they graduate from high school, still haven’t completed the advanced and rigorous course work to be ready for college or the workplace,” King said in a statement.

The state also announced that about 70 percent of about 2,200 students who entered a charter high school in 2009 graduated. That’s above the average graduation rate for New York City, where most of the state’s charter high schools are located.

New York City’s graduation rate isn’t news because former Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the city’s four-year graduation rates for 2013 in an unusually timed press conference last December. The city’s graduation rate represents a nearly 15-point jump since 2005.

City officials didn’t say much after the state’s announcement. Chancellor Carmen Fariña took the chance to tout the city’s pre-kindergarten expansion and push to improve middle schools.

“Graduation rates are moving in the right direction, but we have a long way to go,” Fariña said. “But the most important thing is also to keep in mind that it’s not about just getting into college, it’s staying there all four years.”

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