New analysis suggests early signs of tracking in New York’s expanded graduation options

New York State’s new graduation options were meant to ensure students aren’t unfairly kept from graduation, but a new analysis found a drawback: black and low-income students are more likely to take less rigorous or career-focused paths to a diploma.

The Education Trust-New York found that black students are now disproportionately more likely to use an evaluation meant to test entry-level work skills on their way to graduation. Additionally, low-income students are twice as likely to use new graduation options to earn a less challenging diploma than their more affluent peers.

The analysis represents a Catch-22 for policymakers: Though officials created these options, in part, to help historically underserved students graduate, they also want to avoid tracking students into the less rigorous coursework.

“It’s concerning when you see that black students are over-represented in pathways focused on careers as opposed to college,” said Abja Midha, deputy director of Ed Trust-NY. (Chalkbeat and Education Trust both receive funding from the Gates Foundation.)

In New York state, students have traditionally been required to pass five Regents exams in specific subjects to earn a diploma. But in recent years, state policymakers have created different options for students who struggle to pass these tests. The effort is designed to ensure that students who can demonstrate their aptitude in other ways are not unfairly held back, supporters say.

One of the state’s new options allows students to substitute their final Regents exam for another test in an area such as career and technical education, arts, math, or science. Students can also swap a skills certificate, called the Career Development and Occupations Credential, for their last exit exam.

The CDOS credential was originally created for students with disabilities and meant to evaluate basic work skills. Regents courses, on the other hand, are meant to prepare students for college. Though it’s too early to make any sweeping conclusions, early results suggest that a disproportionately high number of black students are using this graduation path.

Black students represent only 16 percent of graduates statewide, but they make up 29 percent of diploma recipients who used the CDOS pathway, according to the Ed Trust-NY report. In New York City, the difference is slightly more pronounced, with black students representing 26 percent of the latest graduation cohort and 46 percent of those using the skills certificate to graduate.

Ed Trust-NY also found that similar tracking concerns exist for low-income students. There are three different diploma options in New York state: local, Regents and Advanced Regents. The Regents diploma is earned by most students, the local diploma is awarded to students who struggle to pass the exams, and Advanced Regents diplomas require the most challenging coursework.

Not only are low-income students more likely to use the new options to earn a local diploma, higher income students are more than three times more likely to use a new graduation pathway to earn an Advanced Regents diploma than their low-income peers, according to Ed Trust’s analysis.

State officials have consistently said that all new graduation options they have created are equally rigorous. State education department spokeswoman Emily DeSantis declined to comment on any of the findings in the report, saying only officials are “reviewing the report.”

The results also seem to suggest the state dodged a concern expressed by some policymakers at February’s Board of Regents meeting — at least as it relates to some pathway options. If historically underserved students were not taking advantage of the new graduation options, Regents reasoned, their efforts to help students could exacerbate the state’s achievement gap. (Statewide, black and Hispanic student graduation rates lag behind their white and Asian peers.)

“If we’re not careful, instead of this being an initiative to reduce the gap, it could widen the gap,” said Vice Chancellor Andrew Brown at February’s Regents meeting.

However, the report also suggests that access to these new diploma options might not be even across neighborhoods in New York City. Just four districts —  2, 3, 10 and 25 — represent one third of all diplomas awarded in the city through the new path, even though they enroll fewer than one quarter of graduates.

That is consistent with anecdotal evidence from some school leaders, who say the coursework necessary to offer these new pathways is not always present in the city’s most struggling schools. That presents a problem for the basic idea that these new graduation requirements open up options for students, Midha said.

“The idea behind it was that students would have choice,” Midha said. “They’d be able to choose that [new options] in their area of strength and interest.”