NYC’s 2019 graduation rate inches up to 77%

New York City’s graduation rate inched up as the percentage of students who earned diplomas reached 77.3%, according to state data released Thursday. 

That figure, which represents students who entered high school in 2015 and graduated by August 2019, is a 1.4 percentage-point increase from the prior year

Graduation rates have grown steadily since 2005, when fewer than half of city students earned diplomas in four years. The uptick mirrors national trends, but may have little to do with how much students are learning. In New York, for instance, the state has made it easier for students to earn diplomas, in part, by creating more pathways to graduation. 

Interim Commissioner Shannon Tahoe maintained that these changes have not watered down the rigor of its requirements to exit high school. The Regents supported these changes because “different types of kids have different types of ways” they can demonstrate proficiency in school, she told reporters.

[Related: How did your school fare? Find out here.]

While officials touted the latest numbers, stubborn disparities remained between racial and ethnic groups and students of different abilities. 

In New York City, the graduation rate among black students was 11 percentage points lower than white students. For Hispanic students, it was 13 percentage points lower than white students. The graduation rate for students with disabilities was 53%, and for those learning English as a new language, it was about 41%.

Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza acknowledged those gaps, but also noted the city’s progress.

“For the sixth consecutive year, we have achieved a record high graduation rate of 77.3%, and this year we are seeing that success grow across every borough and every demographic,” Carranza said in a statement. “We’re going to continue to focus on narrowing the achievement gap and ensure that we are seeing both equity and excellence in action in our schools every day.”

New York City was “on track” to achieve its goal of an 84% graduation rate by 2026, Carranza noted. 

The state’s graduation rate is nearly at that mark, at 83.4%. Charter schools across the state trail slightly, with 80.8% of students earning diplomas.

Meanwhile, New York City’s dropout rose slightly to 7.8% from last year’s 7.5%. Statewide, the rate at which students dropped out of school essentially remained flat at 6.1%. City officials said slight uptick, in part, was due to an increase in students attending Young Adult Borough Centers. Those centers serve students who have fallen behind in credits to earn their diplomas in four years and are counted by the state as dropouts, according to the city.

Aaron Pallas, chair of education policy and analysis at Columbia’s Teachers College, noted the particularly stark differences in which students earn diplomas with an advanced Regents designation. That distinction requires students to earn high marks on additional Regents exams, including math, science, and a foreign language. 

Statewide, only 12% of black students and 17% of Hispanic students earned advanced designation, compared with more than 47% of white students. 

“To the extent that it is a proxy for just having learned more, that will have implications for access to four year colleges and access to better job opportunities” Pallas said. “The graduation rate is a minimum threshold. You can no longer count on a high school diploma as a passport to a job that can provide a stable and secure living.”

Of students who graduated on time, nearly 30% did not meet CUNY’s standards for college readiness in English and math. That’s about 3 percentage points better than the previous year’s graduating class.

Across the state, about 13,200 students — an increase of about 15% from last year — took advantage of alternate graduation requirement options the state has approved in recent years. That includes substituting a social studies exit exam for another one in math, art, or career and technical education, and a newer option to take assessments in four languages other than English. In New York City, 3,743 chose an alternate pathway, up 52.5% from the previous year. Nearly a third of those students took exams in another language, compared to just 170 the year before. 

Among other changes that have eased graduation requirements, in 2016, the state made it easier for students to appeal low scores on Regents exams. In New York City, 3,459 graduates successfully used an appeal, about 20% more than the last graduating class. Those changes have likely contributed to rising graduation rates

The requirements that New York students must fulfill to graduate from high school are expected to change in the next few years. The state Board of Regents is undertaking a major discussion on what students should know before graduating from high school, which could include an overhaul of the state’s vaunted Regents exams. 

Ashley Grant, a staff attorney for child advocacy group Advocates For Children New York, said the “troubling” disparities in graduation rates between students of different races and abilities illustrate why the state should be rethinking diploma requirements.

“It will be critical that the State Education Department and the Board of Regents keep these opportunity gaps a central focus as the state re-examines graduation requirements over the next two years,” Grant said.

The Regents are expected to consider changes by 2022.

Christina Veiga contributed to this report.