On Monday the city learned that its on-time graduation rate rose to 66 percent, its highest level in at least 20 years. By the more stringent state counting method. the city graduated 56.4 percent of its Class of 2008 on time, a 10-year high at least. Either way, it’s pretty significant.
By now, the good news bandwagon has actually gotten a little repetitive. (And the Mayor’s use of test score and graduation rate gains to flay opponents of mayoral control has gotten a little much.) But the graduation rates are based on four years of coursework as well as five exit exams, so those gains should truly be celebrated.
Without trying to rain on the parades, though, future graduation rates are likely to go down. Over the next three years, the state will phase out “local” diplomas, awarded to students who pass Regents exams with a 55-64, instead of a 65 or better. More than a quarter (28 percent) of the Class of 2008 graduates received local diplomas, and this was not much changed from the year before. So absent some amendment to the policy, we could see state-calculated graduation rates closer to 40 percent in three years, when the local diploma option is up. The 15 or 16 percent of each class (graduates and non-graduates) with local diplomas, who have boosted the city’s graduation rate comfortably past the 50 percent mark for the last two years, are going to disappear.
The Center for New York City Affairs recently highlighted this coming trainwreck in its report, “The New Marketplace.” Using 2007 data, authors Kim Nauer and Clara Hemphill showed that “(I)f students had been required to obtain a Regents diploma in 2007, only 34 schools [out of 269] would have had a graduation rate of 75 percent or higher.” The situation was especially dire in small high schools, they said, where 26 percent of the class (graduates and non-graduates) got local diplomas, compared with 17 percent in the large high schools.
Some groups will be hit harder than others. The new data, for the Class of 2008, show that more than a third (35 percent each) of black and Hispanic graduates got local diplomas. Of the 22.5 percent of students with disabilities who graduated on time, two-thirds got local diplomas. And of the 35.8 percent of English Language Learners who graduated with their class in 2008, more than half did it with local diplomas.
Meanwhile, the Board of Regents, under its tough new Chancellor Merryl Tisch, is not likely to “dumb down” state tests. She recently complained the Grade 3-8 math test was “too easy.” But the Regents are considering whether to extend the phase-out of local diplomas. They are also thinking about using a five-year graduation rate for NCLB accountability purposes. That could give a substantial boost to the most challenged students, and the U.S. Department of Education has suggested that such a change might be approved.
Meanwhile, be prepared for footnotes and asterisks galore if the local diplomas no longer count. The DOE will fall all over itself to clarify any charts or graphs that show an education indicator going downhill. It’s just not in their playbook.