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NYC’s 2022 graduation rate rises as state officials relax graduation requirements

Three high school graduates in blue caps and gowns are in the background, while a close up of a graduation cap with photos taped to it is in the foreground.

Graduation rates in New York City were 2.5 percentage points higher than 2021. Changing graduation standards may have played a role.

Christian K. Lee for Chalkbeat

You can find your school’s graduation rate using the searchable table at the bottom of this story.

Graduation rates in New York City jumped to 83.7% last school year, 2.5 percentage points higher than the previous year, the state’s education department announced Thursday.

Statewide, 87% of students graduated within four years, about a point higher than the previous year.

Changing requirements to earn a diploma likely explains at least part of the increase: The class of 2022 experienced three straight years of changes to the state’s high-stakes exit exams, as education officials did not want to unfairly punish students whose schooling was upended by the pandemic.

To graduate, students must traditionally pass five Regents exams, though students can substitute alternative work in career and technical education, the arts, or even a skills certificate in place of an exam.

But state officials canceled the Regents exams after the pandemic first hit in March 2020, forcing school buildings to shut down. Instead, students were simply required to pass the related course, a policy that extended into the following year, when the majority of the city’s students continued to learn remotely.

Last school year, New York City students were required to return to school in person and the Regents exams largely returned (once the omicron wave subsided). But in a nod to the ongoing effects of the pandemic on student learning, state officials made it significantly easier to appeal a low score. Students must typically earn a 65 to pass a Regents exam, but officials allowed students to challenge scores as low as 50 if they successfully completed the related course. 

The state education department declined to provide statistics on how many students successfully appealed a low score (the more generous appeals process will continue this school year). And in a break from previous years, senior education department officials did not host a conference call to answer questions about the data.

State officials did release figures on the share of students who received an exemption from at least one Regents exam, meaning they passed the related course and did not need to take the corresponding test.

Roughly 88% of city students who graduated in 2022 received an exemption, up from 73% in 2021, which is not surprising since students who graduated in 2022 experienced an additional school year of high school that was disrupted by the pandemic. Statewide, 92% of students received at least one exemption in 2022. (The New York City statistics in this story do not include charter schools.) 

A department spokesperson, JP O’Hare, acknowledged that changes to requirements “likely contributed” to the higher graduation rates. But the extent of the impact is unclear because it’s difficult to quantify how many students would have graduated if the traditional requirements had remained in place.

Jeff Smink, deputy director of the advocacy group Education Trust New York, acknowledged the graduation rate increases, but emphasized in a statement that “we remain concerned about whether it is an accurate reflection of how well students are prepared for the future.”

“Too many New York students are graduating from high school only to find they need to take non-credit bearing remedial coursework in college or are unable to pass required entry-level workforce exams,” he added. 

Rates increase but disparities persist

New York City students from nearly every demographic category saw higher graduation rates in 2022, though some gaps between groups widened.

White students, for instance, saw a 7-point jump, with 89% graduating on time. Black and Latino students saw more incremental increases to 81% and 80% respectively. Asian American students also saw a 1 percentage point increase to 92%.

Students with disabilities and those learning English graduated at significantly lower rates, 64% and 67% respectively. English learners have seen dramatic increases in their graduation rates in recent years, likely in part because those students were not required to earn a passing score on the English exam, a common stumbling block.

“Our guess is that the Regents exam waivers during the pandemic have disproportionately benefited students who most struggle with those exams,” said Sarah Part, a senior policy analyst at Advocates for Children. Still, she added that “it is noteworthy that we’ve seen these continual increases across the board.”

Dropout rates inched up very slightly to 5% this year, an increase of less than 1 point, state data show.

City education department officials acknowledged gaps between student groups, and pointed to their goal of exposing more students to career options before they leave high school.

“We are off to a strong start but we will continue to work until we achieve our mission to have ALL of our students graduate not just with a diploma, but with a real pathway to a rewarding career and long-term economic security, equipped to be a positive force for change,” First Deputy Chancellor Dan Weisberg wrote in a statement. 

Are Regents exams on the way out?

There are additional changes on the horizon that could boost the city’s future graduation rates. 

Starting this school year, New York City education officials are allowing schools to grade most of their own students’ Regents exams instead of sending them to centralized sites to be graded by educators at other schools. Researchers found that before the switch to centralized grading more than a decade ago, educators systematically boosted students’ scores to nudge them over the threshold to earn a passing score. 

More broadly, state education leaders are in the process of rethinking graduation standards, as New York remains one of just eight states that require exit exams to earn a diploma. Research suggests that those types of exams don’t make students more prepared for life after high school and may actually harm low-income students of color.

Even before the pandemic hit, the state had been slowly downgrading the significance of the state’s exit exams, which have been in place since the 19th century, carving out new pathways to a diploma and leading to an increasingly complex tangle of graduation standards. State officials have been reluctant to abandon the exams entirely, and some groups argue that the exams are an objective measure of whether students are ready for college or careers. But New York’s current education commissioner, Betty Rosa, has signaled that the tide might be changing. 

“Regents exams have been the gold standard for over a century — and with good reason,” Rosa wrote in 2019, before she was appointed commissioner. “But our systems must be continually reviewed, renewed, and occasionally revised in order to best serve our students and the people of this great state.”

Alex Zimmerman is a reporter for Chalkbeat New York, covering NYC public schools. Contact Alex at azimmerman@chalkbeat.org.

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