By Jay Rey

News Staff Reporter

If you want to measure which students are falling short in high school, the Class of 2016 holds some clues.

Despite a rise in graduation rates last year - reaching 81 percent statewide - data from the Class of 2016 shows there are still troubling, long-standing gaps in achievement among populations of students:

Boys.

Blacks and Hispanics.

Students learning English.

Students with disabilities.

The poor.

The disparities in graduation rates are noticeable in Buffalo, but elsewhere, too.

African-Americans, for example, continued to graduate at lower rates than whites in Niagara Falls and Cheektowaga Central.

Boys in North Tonawanda graduated at a lower rate than their female classmates.

And economically disadvantaged students graduated at lower rates in Maryvale and Williamsville North.

"These are societal issues that we've had forever," said Wendy Paterson, dean of the School of Education at SUNY Buffalo State. "We look at these achievement gaps and see nothing is changing, and a lot of times it's true nothing is changing, because the factors that produce them don't change."

“Far and away, non-school factors more strongly predict those outcomes than in-school factors,” said Corey Bunje Bower, assistant professor at the University at Buffalo, who studies achievement gaps. “It’s not that teachers and curriculum and class size don’t make a difference. They just don’t, on average, make as big a difference as those other factors.”

The Buffalo News took a closer look at some of those achievement gaps in 68 public high schools across Erie and Niagara counties using August graduation rates released this month by the state Education Department. Comparisons were based on a sample size of at least 30 students in a class.

The Class of 2016 numbered slightly more boys than girls, but in more than two-thirds of local high schools, a larger percentage of girls graduated.

That graduation gap between girls and boys ranged from as little as 1 percentage point at Amherst, Starpoint and Charter School for Applied Technology to as much as 24 percentage points at Lafayette High School.

Statewide, the gap was about 7 percentage points.

Bower cautioned about reading too much into disparities with small graduating classes.

"But across the board, yes," Bower said, "boys are less likely to succeed in schools than girls and there’s been a lot of debate about what we should do about that.”

There’s little debate about the evidence - the gender gap, in fact, appears to be growing wider in college - but more controversial are the causes.

The prevailing theory, Bower said, is that schools are set up to favor girls and the way they learn best - focused on self-discipline, self-control, raising hands, sitting quietly without losing focus.

“Those types of things girls score higher on than boys,” Bower said, “and it’s probably mostly because of social norms and the way we raise kids, directly and indirectly telling girls they’re expected to behave.”

English language learners are drawing attention across the state, because their graduation rates are so low. Less than a third of students from the Class of 2016 considered "limited English proficient" graduated on time last year.

“This is an area we’re all very concerned about and are closely monitoring,” Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said after unveiling the latest graduation figures. “Clearly, our ELL students are not getting the services they need, and we’re trying to fix that.”

As a whole, the ELL numbers in the Class of 2016 were relatively small across the Buffalo region - at least 284 - and concentrated in only a few high schools, specifically in the city where there has been a surge in the refugee population.

Riverside Institute of Technology had 45 students who were limited English proficient in last year’s class. Just five graduated.

At Lafayette, 91 students – two-thirds of the school’s graduating class - were English language learners. Only about a quarter graduated.

There was, however, a bright spot: Once an English language learner became proficient in English, the graduation rate for those students shot up to 80 percent at both Riverside and Lafayette.

Students who were economically disadvantaged - meaning their families qualified for some type of public assistance - graduated at lower rates than their better-off classmates. That was the case in two-thirds of the area's high schools last year, including Niagara Falls, Maryvale, North Tonawanda, Wilson and Springville, along with Williamsville North and South - two high schools in one of the region’s most affluent suburbs.

But at 11 high schools in Buffalo, the opposite was true and the percentage of disadvantaged students graduating was higher. That included three charter schools - Oracle, Western New York Maritime and Charter School for Applied Technologies - which had the largest proportion of students in need.

Socioeconomic background is still the strongest predictor of how well a student will do in school.

“By far,” Bower said. “Socioeconomic status trumps everything else.”

Part of the problem is a growing "opportunities" gap between the rich and poor, Bower and Paterson said. Kids from low-income households generally are more exposed to negative influences that will affect their outcome -  from neighborhood crime to poor environmental conditions to less access to healthy foods.

“The list goes on and on,” Bower said. “I don’t think that people are really aware of the vast differences in day-to-day life between high income and low-income families. And people definitely aren’t aware how they impact kids’ outcomes.”

Some of the largest graduation gaps were in special education, which encompasses students with a wide range of emotional, physical and mental disabilities.

Statewide, the graduation rate was 55 percent last year for students in special education compared to 86 percent for general education students.

Locally, in high schools with at least 30 special education students, the graduation gap ranged from a low of five percentage points at McKinley and Orchard Park to a high of 39 percentage points at Kenmore East. Niagara Falls had the highest number of special education students with 84.

Graduation requirements for students with disabilities include "safety nets," one of which was just added by the state Education Department in June.

Certain students with disabilities can now earn a local diploma by passing two Regents exams - math and English language arts - as opposed to the required five.

The graduation gap between black and white students has been closing across New York State the past couple years - slowly.

Last year, the graduation rate for white students in the state was 89 percent compared to 71 percent for blacks. The gap was the same for Hispanic students.

Locally, the high schools - like the region - are largely segregated with only 11 schools having graduating classes with at least 30 white students and 30 black students.

Most of those had higher graduation rates among whites, but the disparities were smaller than the statewide average and ranged from 1 percentage point at Lockport to 12 percentage points in Niagara Falls.

Only South Park and Cleveland Hill in Cheektowaga had higher graduation rates among black students.

The racial gaps strongly overlap with socioeconomics, Bower said. Racism, in less noticeable forms, is another contributing factor, whether it's African-American students facing more school suspensions or placed in more remedial classes.

“That’s going on every day of their lives in a million different ways,” Bower said. “People’s automatic assumption is that it must be overt racism causing this and that’s not really true. In most cases, there’s much more subtle racism going on that people mostly are not intending and not aware of.”