When the mayor announced the Class of 2012 graduation rates on June 17, he blamed higher Regents requirements for a drop in the percentage of on-time graduates. But this is not the full explanation. There were several disturbing elements in the numbers that could signal a long-term flattening of graduation rates.
The drop in the city’s graduation rate was small — less than a percentage point — at 64.7 percent for the Class of 2012 versus 65.5 percent for the Class of 2011 (including August graduates). But it was unexpected. This is the first time since 2002 that grad rates have dropped.
It couldn’t be the Regents alone. The higher Regents requirements are not new. They have been phased in since 2005, when the entering high school class had to pass two of its five Regents with at least a 65, instead of 55. The following three cohorts each added another Regents at 65 — and graduation rates continued to climb.
The last test was not the hardest. There was no particular Regents test saved for the final phase-in year. Passing algebra, ELA, global history, US history and a science in any order was fine.
The decline was confined mostly to New York City. Using the state categories, high-need rural districts, large suburban districts, “average need” and “low need” districts all had increasing graduation rates for 2012. Though rates in the “Big Four” urban districts of Syracuse, Yonkers, Rochester and Buffalo dropped (only two of them as much as New York City). still, the overall June graduation average for all districts outside of New York City rose to 81.6 percent, up from 81.2 percent the previous year.
The students who are traditionally the hardest to graduate fell further behind. The standout was English language learners. Just 40.5 percent of city ELLs in the Class of 2012 graduated by August, a drop of almost five percentage points from 45.1 percent for 2011 and 46.1 percent for 2010. This cannot be only about the Regents ELA. That test is often students’ first or second Regents, and of course can be taken multiple times. In addition, former ELLs — those who began high school as ELLs but tested out of the classification — have also seen declining graduation rates for each of the last three years.
Black and Hispanic students made no progress. The on-time graduation gap between black and Hispanic students and their white and Asian counterparts was unchanged again: 20 points between blacks and whites and 22 points between Hispanics and whites. They have been stuck at these levels for the last five years. Students with disabilities had a graduation rate of 27.6, virtually unchanged for the last two years and far below the 45 percent statewide average. If black and Hispanic students, who make up more than 70 percent of the city’s students, cannot narrow the gaps between their rates of graduation and those of whites and Asians, then the overall grad rate is unlikely to improve.
Finally, there is the college-ready graduation rate. Just over one-fifth (21.9 percent) of the entering class in 2008 was prepared to succeed (minimally) in college or career by June 2012, judged by Regents scores. That’s a point higher than last year, but it’s a sign of profoundly mediocre education, with all this mayor’s reforms. The black college-ready rate was 11.1 percent; for Hispanics it was 12.2 percent.
Our graduates are regularly stuck in remedial courses when they go to college — in fact the number has been increasing. As Yoav Gonen in the NY Post reported, since 2009, the remediation rate for city public-school graduates who enroll at CUNY 2-year colleges has increased by about 6 percentage points — from just under 74 percent to fully 80 percent last year.
The numbers suggest the city is hitting a wall. Graduation rates did climb encouragingly for several years, as teachers worked extraordinarily hard to meet draconian test-based accountability measures. But that takes the system only so far. College readiness involves abilities that a compliance and test-driven education cannot provide.
More of the same won’t do it. Next year high school graduates must pass a Common Core-aligned Algebra Regents, and further Common Core tests will be introduced from there. Those tests are harder. There were already whispers about heavy use of credit recovery and dumbed-down Regents tests in getting the graduation rate this high. Now it’s hard to see where the push for better rates will come from.
A high school diploma is a valuable piece of paper. It may not be sufficient, but it is absolutely necessary. Reaching an acceptable four-year graduation rate, say, matching the “average need” districts’ 85 percent, requires a sea change. It starts with an education mayor, but a real one this time.