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After COVID paused Regents exams, graduation rates for NYC’s English language learners surged

A crowd of students gathers outside a gray concrete high school building.

Students walk toward Pan American International High School, which enrolls newcomer immigrant students.

Gabby Jones for Chalkbeat

Arnulfo Toribio was ready to drop out of high school. 

It was 2020, and Toribio felt exhausted from learning years’ worth of material while balancing school with a full-time restaurant job. Before immigrating to New York City a few years earlier, he had spent much of his childhood working on a Mexican farm to support his family after his father died, missing at least six years of formal schooling.

A guidance counselor persuaded him to stay on track for a diploma, and Toribio got an additional boost just months before graduation: In response to the pandemic, the state canceled New York’s Regents exams, five of which students are required to pass in order to graduate. Students would still need to pass their courses. Toribio, who hadn’t passed his English or Algebra Regents after a couple attempts, graduated later that year. 

“I benefited from that policy,” Toribio explained in Spanish through a translator. “It honestly helped me graduate.”

Bucking national trends, graduation rates rose across the state in the 2020-21 school year. Even more surprising, the rate catapulted for the city’s English language learners — rising by 14 percentage points to 60%, the largest increase on record for those students and a greater rise than other student groups.

The graduation rate spike seemed counterintuitive given that low-income immigrant communities had been severely affected by the pandemic, and many English learners found it more difficult to learn remotely. (Educators also found it difficult to teach remotely.)

Data obtained by Chalkbeat suggests that the temporary policy change — first canceling the English Regents and then not requiring a passing score on it to graduate in 2020-21 — removed a hurdle for English language learners trying to earn their diplomas. More English learners graduated during that time period, far fewer of whom passed the English Regents exam.

State officials acknowledged the spike could have been connected to the temporary cancellation of the Regents exams, and specifically the English exam, but they couldn’t say to what extent. 

The effects of that policy could become clearer soon, as the state prepares to release graduation rates from the 2021-22 school year, when Regents exams resumed. The data could help inform a commission tasked with recommending changes to the state’s graduation requirements in 2024, including whether the Regents exams should still be required for students to graduate. 

More English language learners take advantage of the Regents cancellation

Students typically take the English Regents exam at some point between freshman and senior year — with some taking it multiple times in hopes of eventually passing so they can get their diplomas. (Some students can appeal their scores and still graduate.)

In the 2018-19 school year, nearly 3,000 English language learners graduated from city public schools within four years, and roughly 67% of them had passed their English Regents at some point. In comparison, nearly all students who graduated and were not learning English as a new language had passed their English exams. 

By 2020-21, when the English Regents was optional, the number of English language learners who earned diplomas rose to nearly 4,900, while just 8% passed their exams. (Pass rates also fell for other students who graduated, as more of them earned diplomas. Still, more than three-quarters of non-English learners had passed the test.)

The data doesn’t prove that English Regents exams are the source of low graduation rates among English learners because other factors could have influenced the recent rise, multiple policy experts who reviewed the data said. 

Still, there’s “pretty good evidence” that canceling the exams was “one of the things that caused kids to be able to graduate,” said Julie Sugarman, senior policy analyst for K-12 education who focuses on English learners at the Migration Policy Institute’s National Center on Immigration Integration Policy. 

Sugarman also noted that counselors could have encouraged more students to graduate, or looser grading policies could have helped students. (In Toribio’s case, he said his teachers were also flexible with his assignment deadlines as he searched for a new job during the start of the pandemic.)

Still, the data shows strong signs that “students who disproportionately struggle with high stakes standardized tests are disproportionately impacted” when those exams are no longer required to graduate, Sarah Part, a senior policy analyst with Advocates For Children, which has been advocating to remove Regents as a graduation requirement, said in an email. 

English language learners typically don’t graduate on time

Graduation rates for English learners have been historically low — 46% graduated on time in 2020 in New York City, compared with 79% of all students citywide. Advocates and policy experts have cited many reasons, including that newer immigrant students might juggle work with school and lack of enough support in classrooms as they’re still learning the language.

Those rates have steadily grown since 2016 by an average of roughly 4 percentage points annually. But the 14-point jump in the 2020-21 school year was an anomaly. It was so high, that for the first time in eight years, English learners no longer had the lowest four-year graduation rate among the city’s major student groups, surpassing children with disabilities. 

Research has found little evidence that requiring high-stakes graduation exams improves student achievement, and doing so may actually increase dropout rates for struggling students. The English exams can be particularly hard on English learners, advocates and researchers said. Sugarman said she often hears from educators about students who have passed all of their classes, but can’t pass the English Regents exam.

Just 3% of the city’s English learners who graduated last year did so without using any exemptions from Regents exams, compared to 28% of non-English learners, according to an analysis from The Education Trust-New York. 

That organization described their findings as a “signal that students may be underprepared for postsecondary opportunities.”

At the same time, the data is likely fodder for advocates who have called for the state to stop requiring the Regents exams to graduate.

“What are more meaningful measures that can still capture the student’s learning and still give them different possibilities in different ways, so that their ability to graduate doesn’t depend on one test they take on one day for a few hours out of the four years plus of their high school career?” said Juliet Eisenstein, senior staff attorney with Advocates For Children who sits on the state’s commission that is reviewing graduation requirements.  

Juanmy Moscoso, an English learner who graduated in 2021, took the English Regents exam five times before passing it, finally succeeding his junior year of high school, three years after he first moved to the United States from the Dominican Republic. He was part of the minority of English learners who passed the exam prior to graduating in 2021. 

He felt that his teachers had done all they could to prepare him, but it was tough to pass the exam while also juggling a challenging course load, including several Advanced Placement classes. 

“The problem is me not knowing the language as I wanted,” Moscoso said.

Hua-Yu Sebastian Cherng, an associate professor of international education at NYU, who has studied English language learners, has raised the larger question of why officials expect newcomer English learners to graduate on time to begin with — an argument other policy researchers have also made. 

Those students are acclimating to a new country, as well as a new language, and could benefit from extra support and more time instead of “getting them out as quickly as possible,” he said. He said that many newer immigrants don’t pursue college and wondered if that would be different if they received more support in school. 

There are signs that English learners who get more time to learn the language perform well academically. The graduation rates for students who are former English learners typically outpace their peers. 

Toribio, the student who graduated in 2020, went on to attend community college. But he stopped attending because he was struggling to pay for school, according to an advocate who has helped him in the past. He hopes to go back soon.

Reema Amin is a reporter covering New York City schools with a focus on state policy and English language learners. Contact Reema at ramin@chalkbeat.org.

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