Number of New York City students successfully appealing Regents exam scores in order to graduate triples

Hundreds of New York City students took advantage of new, state-created graduation options — including an easier appeals process — according to data from the city’s education department, likely contributing to a boost in the city’s overall graduation rates.

The city saw a two-point climb in graduation rates in 2016, continuing an upward trend that started years ago. But simultaneously, state officials made it slightly easier for some students to earn diplomas, allowing those with disabilities to graduate by passing fewer Regents exams and dropping the cutoff for students wishing to appeal a failing score.

These changes raised a question: Were more students graduating simply because the state lowered the bar?

That picture is now coming into focus. The number of students who graduated in New York City by appealing a low Regents exam score more than tripled under the new rule, though the city says it’s unfair to infer a graduation rate increase from that number alone.

The change, approved by the state’s Board of Regents last spring, allowed students to appeal a Regents exam with a score as low as 60. While 65 is the passing score, an “appeal” allows students who scored close to that to be granted credit. Before the change, students had to score a 62 to file an appeal. State officials also eliminated an attendance requirement that students once had to meet in order to qualify for an appeal.

With that change in place, the number of students graduating using an appeal shot up from 419 to 1,299 between 2015 and 2016.

Students who appealed might not have taken advantage of state changes, however. For one thing, it’s unclear how many of these students would have qualified for an appeal without the extra two-point cushion or the elimination of the attendance requirement. (If a student who scored a 63, for instance, she would have been able to appeal her score either year.)

It’s also unfair to assume all of those appeals contributed to a higher graduation rate, city officials said. This rule likely changed the behavior of students. Take a student who failed the global history exam with a score of 61. Though she might have successfully appealed her score this year, in past years she might have retaken the test — and passed on the second or third try.

The city also argues these new pathways were meant for students to use.

“It is not possible to say if and how this group of students would have otherwise graduated. The possibility of using an appeal may have affected students’ and schools’ decisions on 2015-16 courses, as well as whether students would take―and their performance on―certain Regents exams in 2016,” said education department spokesman Will Mantell.

The city estimates that at least 490 more students graduated this year because they took advantage of the new state graduation options in August or later — which means they had no chance to retake the exams. That number includes 248 students who took advantage of the new option for students with disabilities, 174 students who used the general appeal, and some who used multiple new options. That accounts for about one-third of the city’s total graduation rate increase.