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Editorial: On the paths to graduation, excellence must be the goal

The statewide high school graduation rate in New York last year topped 80 percent, a fact worthy of a big thumbs-up. A primary reason for the increase is the adoption of “local diplomas,” which offer alternatives to the standard requirement of passing five Regents exams.

The intentions behind local diplomas are good ones. A “one size fits all” approach to education is not fair or desired. At the same time, the question must be asked whether kids earning their diplomas these days are coming out of school prepared for their next step in life, whether it be heading to college or entering the job market. The answer, too often, is no.

Regents exams are still required with local diplomas, but with some leniency. Students who don’t quite make the grade on one or two of the Regents may be passed through after making an appeal to local administrators. There’s also an alternative path students are given to explore the arts, foreign languages, career or technical education, and see it count toward graduation. And certain students with disabilities may qualify for a diploma without taking Regents at all, provided they earn a credential showing they’re ready for entry-level employment.

As a recent Buffalo News story recounted, the state Education Department in the mid-1990s acted to make graduation requirements more rigorous, phasing out local diplomas and mandating the passage of five Regents exams.

Some advocacy groups pushed back, saying the tougher standard was unfair to students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The Education Department listened, which is how the local diploma option and alternative pathways came about.

Brian Fritsch is deputy executive director for High Achievement New York, a coalition that advocates for high standards in schools. Fritsch told The News there is a gap between the state graduation rates and the number of students who are ready for the next step.

One concern is that the availability of local diplomas and alternative pathways have the unintended consequence of funneling too many students of color or from low-income backgrounds into those programs and away from college-preparatory or career-focused curriculums.

The Education Trust-New York, a nonprofit that works to raise academic achievement among underprivileged youth, released a report in March stating that black students in the state, as well as low-income students, are disproportionately more likely to earn a less challenging diploma than their more affluent peers. That suggests that the alternative paths to graduation can be a sort of overcorrection, in some cases doing more harm than good to the students whom they were designed to help.

The Buffalo Public School District’s graduation rate a year ago held steady at 64 percent, well below the state average. It’s worth noting, though, that the Education Trust-NY report shows in the Buffalo district the number of Regents and Advanced Regents degrees earned increased 2.79 percent from the previous year, while the number of local diplomas issued here declined by 1.8 percent, making Buffalo an outlier compared to the state’s other large districts.

That statistic might offer a glimmer of hope that if the Buffalo district hews to academic rigor as a guiding star, better outcomes for its students will follow. Surely that must be the goal – challenging students to excel and then sending them on, well prepared for the challenges to come.

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