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Editorial: Regents must uphold high standards while trying new roads to graduation

Betty A. Rosa may be onto something – as long as the Board of Regents, which she leads, is serious about maintaining high educational standards.

Rosa and the Regents – the board that sets educational policy in New York – think the state needs to provide students with more avenues toward graduation without relaxing standards. That’s the right idea, even if there’s more to the challenge than meets the eye. That’s because the standards actually need to be raised.

Start with the benefits: Not every student is best served by going to college. Not every student is interested in pursuing a regents diploma. But all students need to be challenged to meet their potential. There can be more than one path to excellence. That’s what Rosa appears to be acknowledging.

“Simply put,” Rosa wrote earlier this year in a piece for the New York School Boards Association, “the system is not working for everyone and too many students – particularly our most vulnerable students – are leaving high school without a diploma.”

That is certainly true in Buffalo. Although the state’s on-time graduation rate reached 80% in 2018, gaps in achievement persist. Students of color, students from low-income families and students with disabilities or who are learning English as a new language graduate at lower rates. That demands attention.

It’s worse in Buffalo, despite having made gains. Here, 64.5% of students districtwide earned their diplomas on time last year. That’s up from less than 50% a few years ago, but it still means that more than a third of students failed to graduate on time. The question is how New York can better serve those students without lowering the standards that are supposed to give graduation meaning.

And there lies the larger challenge. Too many graduates are entering college unprepared for the academic rigors that await them. They may have a high school diploma, but institutions such as Erie Community College find they have to offer remedial classes to bring those students up to speed.

The problem that Regents must grapple with is not merely how to graduate more students, but to ensure that all students, when they graduate, have actually learned what they were supposed to have learned. That is especially necessary as the world becomes increasingly competitive. For our students to succeed in the wider world, graduation has to mean more than words on a diploma.

At least publicly, the Regents understand the need for high standards. Emily DeSantis, a spokeswoman for the State Education Department. put it this way: “As we have said, this is not about changing our graduation standards. “It’s about providing different avenues – equally rigorous – for kids to demonstrate they are ready to graduate with a meaningful diploma.”

That’s a smart approach to education. Getting there from here will be the challenge.

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