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Ninety-two percent of the state's high school seniors have already passed the English Regents exam and are therefore on track to graduate in June, State Education Commissioner Richard P. Mills said today.

Some of the remaining 8 percent of students took the exam last week, and the test will be offered again in June. Students who pass either one of those exams will be eligible to graduate in June. Those who fall short will get another opportunity in August.

New York's school reform plan requires this year's seniors to pass the English Regents exam in order to graduate. In 2003, students will have to pass five Regents exams -- in English, math, American history, global studies and a science -- in order to receive a diploma.

Because it is the first requirement to kick in, the English Regents has been watched closely as the first major indicator of whether the Board of Regents reform plan is realistic, or whether it will doom large numbers of students to failure. The success rates of individual districts were to be released later today.

"Students and schools are showing that New Yorkers can and will achieve higher standards of learning," Mills said this morning. "In schools the Regents and I visit all over the state, we see a greater focus than ever before on reading and writing."

In addition to passing the English Regents exam, students also must satisfactorily complete their regular course work in order to graduate. Numbers released today did not show the percentage of students who are meeting that requirement.

There are 124,261 high school seniors in New York State, and 114,219 -- or 92 percent -- have passed the English exam. Another 5,275 -- or 4 percent -- have taken the exam but not yet passed it. The remaining 4,767 -- or just under 4 percent -- have not yet taken the exam.

"Now we must push ahead and work hard so the remaining students will reach higher standards," Mills said. "We must ensure they will pass."

Special education students and pupils who entered ninth grade before 1996 are not required to pass the English Regents exam and are not included in the statistics released today.

In addition, another 30,000 students entered ninth grade in 1996, but were held back at least one grade and also are not included in today's figures. They represent about 20 percent of the students who entered ninth grade in 1996, and normally would be expected to now be seniors.

"We must not forget these students as we look today at the seniors," Mills said. "While many students have achieved success, we must remember all the students who are not there yet. All school districts must give them extra help."

During a phase-in period, school districts were given the option of allowing students to pass the English exam with a grade of 55. Most districts took that option. In later years, a grade of 65 will be needed to pass.

Low-need districts -- mostly relatively affluent suburban districts -- recorded the best results, with 97 percent of their seniors already having passed the English Regents exam. Urban districts outside New York City had the lowest scores, with just 85 percent of their seniors having successfully completed the exam.

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