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Editorial: Insufficient progress in Buffalo schools

Superintendent Kriner Cash’s goal of a four-year graduation rate of 70% continues to be an elusive one for the Buffalo Public Schools. Data released Thursday by the state Education Department shows Buffalo’s rate improved by just 0.2 percentage points, to 64.7%.

That represents baby steps on the road to excellence.

The district has come a long way from 2012, when the figure was an alarming 48%. However, an improvement of two-tenths of a percentage point over the previous year is essentially standing still. It won’t get us where we need to be.  And, of course, that doesn’t even get to the troubling question of graduates who aren’t really educated.

The numbers look worse compared to the other Big 5 districts. Rochester improved its four-year graduation rate by 3.7 percentage points, Yonkers by 2.5, Syracuse by 2 and New York City by 1.4. The overall state score was an 83.4% graduation rate, up 0.8 percentage points.

Another disturbing trend for Buffalo is the stubborn presence of racial and ethnic achievement gaps. Black students here trailed their white counterparts by 12.3% in graduation rate. Hispanic students fell 16.5% behind.

Across the state, the achievement gap for black students was 14.9%, and 15.7% for Hispanics.

Cash has noted in recent years that it’s difficult to “move the graduation needle” four or five points at a time in a large and complex urban district. That’s a reasonable point, but it would be nice to see something closer to the two-point improvement Syracuse measured.

The latest state statistics, which include August graduations, are for students who entered ninth grade in 2015. That happens to be the first year Cash took office and began promoting his New Education Bargain. His approach involves long-term improvement, such as a heavy concentration on younger grades, where students’ minds are most ready to be molded. That means patience is called for. Quick fixes get more attention but they seldom last.

Interim State Education Commissioner Shannon Tahoe said on a conference call Thursday she had been in touch with Cash this week to discuss the graduation findings. She added that the department is focused on closing achievement gaps throughout the state, including beginning a two-year study on how to overhaul graduation requirements.

“We want to examine what a state diploma should signify, to ensure educational excellence and equity for every student in the state,” Tahoe said.

The focus on excellence should be paramount. In the past few years, too much of the improvement in graduation rates can be attributed to an increase in “local diplomas,” which require less stringent testing than a Regents diploma.

According to Ian Rosenblum, executive director of the Education Trust–New York, “while the state’s overall high school graduation rate increased by 1.6 percentage points from 2016 to 2019, 86% of this increase was the result of greater use of local diplomas.”

There’s a saying in business that what gets measured, gets managed. Numbers don’t tell the whole story about progress in our schools, but they are one indication that there is much work to do.

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