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Education policy makers divided on how to interpret grad rates

ALBANY — After listening to State Education Commissioner John King present the state’s latest graduation rate data today, members of the Board of Regents were divided on how to respond.

Some grumbled about the rates, pointing in particular to declines that the state’s five largest cities experienced. But others said they had expected far worse.

Though statewide graduation rates stayed steady at 74 percent, rates in the “Big Five” fell by 2.8 points on average, a dip that was largely weighted by a seven-point decline in Buffalo. In New York City, the four-year graduation rate dropped by half a point, to 60.4 percent.

Elsewhere in the state, districts considered “low-need” because many students come from relatively affluent families graduated students on time 94 percent of the time.

“Our affluent children do as well as anybody,” said Regent Kathleen Cashin, of Brooklyn. “Where we don’t do well is with the poor. This concerns me because of the fact that every single large city district has gone down.”

Cashin said the declines masked more significant problems in the big cities because they came “at a time of unfettered credit recovery,” when few regulations constrained how students in last year’s graduating class could earn make-up credits for classes they had failed. (In New York City at least, more regulations are now in place.)

But other Regents said they saw more reason for optimism in the new numbers because the declines were less than they had feared.

Students who entered high school in 2008 were the first required to earn a Regents diploma by passing five Regents exams with a 65 or higher. A less rigorous local diploma option disappeared, a change that critics said would leave thousands of students at risk of dropping out.

James Tallon, who represents schools along the state’s Southern Tier, said there had been a mentality that the graduation rate would plummet.

“To me, the conclusion that jumps out is that … when we got rid of the local diploma, the sky didn’t fall,” he said about the new numbers.

Wade Norwood, from Rochester, whose graduation rate fell 2.1 points from 45.5 to 43.4, said he thought the data showed mixed measures of success. He said it was clear that some but not all students earned the more challenging Regents diploma who might otherwise have graduated with the local diploma.

“We’ve raised the floor without crumbling the foundation, but we haven’t raised the ceiling,” Norwood said.

The standards for graduation will continue to get higher. Next year, the state will begin aligning Regents exams to the Common Core standards, after tying elementary and middle school reading and math tests to the standards this year. The phase-in will start with incoming ninth graders for the 2013-2014 school year, who will have to pass a Common Core-aligned algebra exam.

“We don’t expect any negative impact on graduation rates” in the upcoming years in response to the Common Core implementation, King said.