Capital Region

2020 grad rates climb after state suspended exam requirement amid pandemic

From Saratoga Springs High School's 2020 graduation

From Saratoga Springs High School's 2020 graduation

Graduation rates largely climbed in Capital Region school districts last spring as exemptions to passing canceled Regents exams appeared to bolster graduation rates in some area districts.

After the pandemic struck in the spring and schools shifted to remote learning in March, state officials canceled annual Regents exams scheduled in June and August, exams that serve as longstanding graduation requirements for New York high school students. Students were granted exemptions if they instead passed the Regents-level courses.

Interim Education Commissioner Betty Rosa on a call with reporters Thursday morning said state education officials were still deciding what to do about Regents exams this spring and whether to provide students with similar exemptions as last year.

“We are exploring the various options and no decision has been made; we are still in the exploratory phase,” Rosa said when asked whether the exemption would be available this school year too. “Knowing we are in January, we are trying to make a decision as soon as possible.”

Statewide August graduation rates increased to 84.8 percent last school year, rising from 83.4 percent in 2019. Achievement gaps that exist for Black and Hispanic students compared to their white counterparts also continued a steady decline but continue to persist in the double digits. Last school year, Black students had a graduation rate 12.8 percentage points lower than white students, but that gap stood at over 18 percentage points five years ago and over 23 percentage points a decade ago. The gap between Hispanic and white students last year stood at 14 percentage points.

“There has been steady progress in narrowing the achievement gaps, but we know more work must be done to eliminate these gaps,” Rosa said Thursday of racial disparities in graduation outcomes.

In Schenectady, the graduation rate rose to 74 percent last school year, the highest in over a decade, with 75 students taking advantage of the exam exemptions and over 450 students meeting all of the exam requirements before the tests were canceled, according to the state data.

Out of 36 Capital Region districts, 22 registered an increased graduation rate from August 2019 to August 2020, according to the new state data.

Duanesburg Central School District clocked in at a 98 percent graduation rate, graduating 60 students out of the 64 in the senior class; Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake increased its graduation rate to over 96 percent, the highest in the area among districts with over 100 students in the senior class. Shenendehowa, which had a graduation rate of 92 percent last school year, conferred more degrees to any other district in the region: at over 700 graduates. Shen again registered a high rate of students earning an advanced Regents diploma, which requires students to meet additional criteria to the base graduation requirements: over 64 percent.

Niskayuna, North Colonie and Guilderland school districts all achieved advanced diploma rates of 60 percent or higher last school year.

The Greater Amsterdam School District increased its graduation rate to nearly 83 percent, a 15 percentage-point increase from the year before, with students utilizing the exam exemptions more than any other district in the area.

Use of the exemptions varied widely across districts: 35 percent of Amsterdam graduates utilized at least one exemption for the four required exams, while 9 percent of Ballston Spa graduates and 2 percent of Burnt Hills graduates utilized at least one exemption. In the Schenectady City School District, 14 percent of graduates utilized an exemption. (Many students have passed all of their Regents exams by the start of their senior year.)

Rosa said state education officials were still analyzing the graduation data and the impact that the exemptions had on the increasing graduation rates. She said the exemptions “were a factor” in graduation rates but that it was impossible to know how many of the students would have passed Regents exams if required to do so. The exemptions will also benefit underclassmen who had the chance to meet the graduation requirement without passing the exam for any Regents-level course they passed last year.

“We cannot say to what extent (the exemptions impacted the graduation rates), as many of these affected students would have passed the Regents exam,” she said.

Some education advocates on Thursday raised concerns that the exam exemptions and disrupted end to last school year left some high school graduates unprepared for life after school. Education Trust-New York, an organization that advocates on educational equity issues, highlighted the wide disparities in use of the exam exemptions. While about 20 percent of graduates in high-need school districts utilized at least one exam exemption, according to the organization’s analysis of the state data, just 8 percent of graduates in average-need districts and 3 percent of students in low-need districts utilized the exemptions.

“The increase in the high school graduation rates for the Class of 2020 masks urgent equity questions about historical and persistent opportunity gaps,” Dia Bryant, deputy director at Education Trust-New York, said in statement after the results were released. “With unprecedented interruption of classroom instruction and learning due to the pandemic last March and no Regents exams or other consistent measures of student readiness, we are deeply concerned about whether the Class of 2020 left high school ready for college and the workforce.”

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