Educators argue over high graduation rate’s significance

Courtesy of Marianne Barthelemy

The city of Syracuse’s high school graduation rate jumped up 6.4 percent from 2015 to 2016 — from 54.5 percent to 60.9 percent.

High school graduation rates in New York state reached a record high in 2016, climbing to 79.4 percent. Rates have increased over 10 percent since 2006 overall.

The city of Syracuse’s high school graduation rate jumped up 6.4 percent from 2015 to 2016 — from 54.5 percent to 60.9 percent. This was the largest graduation rate increase out of the state’s “Big 5 City School Districts,” which is composed of New York City, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Yonkers, according to the state education department.

Syracuse’s increase in graduating students can be attributed to the district’s commitment to offering multiple pathways to graduation, said Linda Mulvey, the chief academic officer of the Syracuse City School District.

SCSD offers students credit recovery programs through summer school and tutorials that run during the school year, Mulvey said. The credit recovery program is designed to help students pass Regents exams when they have failed, she said. To obtain a Regents diploma in New York, a student is required to pass five Regents exams.

With new standards implemented by the state’s education department, a student can now graduate high school by passing fewer than the standard five Regents exams. By taking advantage of the 4 Regents and Career Development and Occupational Studies pathway option, a student can graduate high school with four required Regents exams or New York State Education Department-approved alternative exams, as long as they prove they are prepared for the workforce, according to the state.

Students with Individualized Education Plans, or IEPs, can also graduate with only two of the required five Regents exams, but must show proficiency in science, social studies and another subject through exams or coursework provided by the school.

Jeanne Beattie, a spokeswoman for the New York State Education Department, said in an email that these options are designed to provide “different avenues” with equal rigorousness for students to demonstrate they are ready to graduate.

“Some students excel in areas that were not reflected in five Regents Exams,” she said. “Now, they have meaningful ways to demonstrate their knowledge in other areas that are still directly applicable to succeeding in life.”

Education experts have criticized policies like credit recovery programs, including Morgan Polikoff, associate professor of education at the University of Southern California. Polikoff said the substantial uptick in graduation rates is aided by different factors.

“We have sort of broad scale trends at the district or state level and it’s hard to say what proportion of the increase in these states and districts is due to good things — like teaching kids better or putting more effort into keeping kids in school — or if it’s bad things like credit recovery programs, which don’t lead to better knowledge and skill,” Polikoff said.

Mulvey defended SCSD’s decision to use credit recovery programs to help students graduate, explaining the district’s belief that multiple pathways to graduation is in the best interest of students.

SCSD wants students to have the opportunity to go to college or pursue whatever they want to do, Mulvey said, adding that she doesn’t think that lowering the Regents requirement for vocation-oriented students is lowering the bar, but rather different standards for a different path in life.

“Passing a specific exam, in the big scheme of things as a high school student, is not going to be the only indicator of readiness or success. There’s a lot more to it,” Mulvey said.

Polikoff said he prefers measures that combine both attainment and achievement, so students don’t simply cross the finish line and get out of high school, but actually have skills that can help them get jobs post-graduation.

Mulvey said she understands concerns with changing graduation standards, but said students can be successful through choosing different pathways, whether that be a vocational school, community college or a four-year college.

Overall, Mulvey said she was pleased with the increase in graduation rates.

“This is a credit to principals, to teachers and parents in the community and the work they do to support students,” she said.


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