Statewide high school graduation rates remained stable last year at 74 percent, but there continued to be a wide gap in the graduation rates between suburban districts and their urban and rural counterparts.
Suburban districts tend to graduate 90 percent or more of students within four years, and many of those graduates are ready to go on to college. Rural and urban areas have lower rates of graduation and college preparedness.
The statewide trends identified by the state Department of Education are borne out in the Capital Region. State education officials said they’re pleased to maintain a statewide 74 percent four-year graduation rate, given the more rigorous graduation requirements that have been imposed over the past four years.
“Despite all the naysayers, raising standards was the right thing to do,” said Merryl H. Tisch, chancellor of the Board of Regents. “Our teachers and students rose to the challenge.”
In the Capital Region, larger suburban districts continued to have graduation rates of 90 percent or higher, while urban and rural districts trailed.
Schenectady, for instance, had a 58.2 percent four-year graduation rate, and the city of Albany had a 49.2 percent graduation rate.
The suburban-urban gap, many educators argue, stems from poverty and its associated issues.
“It’s extraordinarily damning of the state and the way they distribute aid,” said Schenectady School Superintendent Laurence Spring. “I think we could find a strong correlation between low graduation rates and poverty.”
In Montgomery County, the Greater Amsterdam School District had a 63.8 percent four-year graduation rate in 2012 — a figure Amsterdam Supervisor Thomas Perillo said has been improving for the past three years. The rate was 58 percent as recently as 2009.
The graduation rate is even higher, he said, when only Amsterdam High School is considered, and not alternative education programs like BOCES. The district has also increased its tutoring and computer-based learning in an effort to improve graduation rates, Perillo said.
“Over the last three years our graduation rate has gone up, so I think some of the things we’re doing are working,” he said.
The Alliance for Quality Education, a group that advocates for more equality in state funding, said the graduation gap shows the need for more funding for districts with low graduation rates.
“When you compare the spending gap, it correlates directly with graduation rates,” said Billy Easton, executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education. “People who say money doesn’t matter in education are not telling the truth.”
State education officials acknowledge there is a gap statewide between wealthier and poorer districts.
“The performance gap between high-need and low-need districts continues to be nearly 30 percent, with nearly 94 percent of students in low-need districts graduating as opposed to only 65 percent of students from high-need urban-suburban districts earning a high school diploma,” Education Department officials said in a statement.
State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. said the statewide graduation rate for white students is nearly 28 percentage points higher than the rates for black and Hispanic students.
He argued that the low graduation rates in some districts show the need to keep pushing for reforms that would improve the college readiness of more students.
Spring said Schenectady is working to increase graduation rates, but it’s a long-term effort.
“Changing the graduation rate is like turning an aircraft carrier,” he said. “A lot of years go into changing the graduation rate.
“No matter how you cut it, 58 percent is not enough,” he added.
Preventing students from dropping out may be more important than improving the four-year graduation rate, said David Albert, spokesman for the New York State School Boards Association.
Statewide, about 13 percent of students don’t graduate within four years but remain enrolled in school and may eventually get a diploma, Albert said. “Graduating in five years is better than not graduating at all,” he said.
Statewide, he said, about 8.5 percent of students who enroll as high school freshmen drop out — but again, urban and rural districts tend to have higher dropout rates.
“That’s where we need to focus our attention,” Albert said.