CAPITAL REGION -- As the landscape of high school graduation requirements continues to shift, more area students are graduating with either advanced diplomas or local diplomas -- opposite ends of a three-tiered diploma system.
Even as the overall graduation rate in the region slipped by about half a percentage point, the rate of students earning advanced Regents diplomas, which require them to pass three extra exams, climbed from 38 percent in June 2016 to 40 percent in June 2017.
The share of graduates in the region earning local diplomas – available to students who pass some but not all Regents exams and appeal near-passing scores with local administrators – rose slightly, from 3.7 percent in 2016 to 4.2 percent last year.
Districts are also beginning to use a bevy of alternative graduation options approved by the Board of Regents in recent years, though implementation of the so-called graduation “pathways” varies widely across districts, according to state graduation data.
Local administrators acknowledged changing graduation requirements complicate the available options for students, but they also appear to appreciate the flexibility offered by the new pathways. Some said students who graduated last year thanks to a pathway might not have otherwise earned a diploma at all.
“Some kids will struggle to pass the Regents, and when they do struggle, the four-plus-one pathway allows us to graduate students who may not have graduated in the past,” said David Blanchard, superintendent of the Schoharie School District, where 20 of 54 graduates last year earned diplomas by passing an extra science exam in place of a social studies test, according to state data.
A Manhattan-based advocacy group in March released an analysis of the graduation pathways, raising concerns that as the use of the pathways expands, some students, particularly low-income students, students of color and students with special needs, may be unfairly funneled into the pathways.
Abja Midha, deputy director of Education Trust-New York, said last week that it was too early to tell whether the pathways are being used in this way, but she said it was critical to watch that, as districts are given more flexibility in how they move students through school and toward graduation.
“Are students of color and low-income students receiving access to the same high-quality instruction that will prepare them to achieve a Regents diploma or an advanced Regents diploma?” Midha said.
Blanchard said Schoharie plans to make students and families aware of the different options available to them without pushing students in any particular direction.
“Our goal is to hold every student to the highest standard in meeting their potential and to not be a gatekeeper of that potential,” he said. “We do not want adults to be a gatekeeper for where kids can go.”
Data show mixed use of new ‘pathway’ options
Aside from the traditional Regents diploma, which requires students to pass Regents exams in science, math, English and social studies, the other options available include advanced and local diplomas. But now, students can also graduate through what state officials call a “four-plus-one” pathway.
The pathway option allows students to swap out one of two social studies exams, if they instead pass an additional test in another subject: a second test in math, science or English, specifically. Students can also satisfy the four-plus-one pathway by earning career and technical accreditation, demonstrating proficiency in the arts or earning a career development credential, which previously had been available to just special education students.
The myriad graduation routes, spelled out in a nine-page, frequently-asked-questions document from the state Education Department, is just starting to work its way through school guidance offices and out to students and families.
Eleven of 38 local school districts reported no students graduating through the four-plus-one pathway last year. Those included Ballston Spa, Duanesburg, Niskayuna and Saratoga Springs school districts. Lauren Gemmill, Niskayuna’s assistant superintendent for instruction, said she and the high school principal and district superintendent were meeting soon to discuss how the district could take advantage of the new pathway options.
But other districts have started to utilize the new options, based on the first year of reporting on district-level use of them. In some districts, the pathways appeared to bolster the overall graduation rate.
More than 40 of the 77 graduates from Canajoharie Central School last year graduated using a pathway option, according to data reported to the state. Twenty-two of the graduates earned diplomas by passing an extra science test, while 12 earned diplomas with a special career credential.
But no clear trends around the use of pathways, or their broader effect on graduation rates, have emerged. Other districts that started using the pathway options saw their overall graduation rates slide last year. Schalmont Central School District, for instance, had 23 students graduate using four-plus-one options, according to state data; the district’s overall graduation rate fell from 91 percent in 2016 to 86.5 percent last year.
In Schenectady schools, about two dozen students earned diplomas through the pathway options last year, but Superintendent Larry Spring said the district still has work to do to make everyone aware of the options and to offer the courses and programs students need to take full advantage of them.
“There are still a couple of barriers keeping it from being as helpful as it was intended,” Spring said. “Any time the state opens up avenues of flexibility, we have to keep working on what could that mean for us.”
High-achievers on the rise
The rate of students earning the highest-level diplomas -- the advanced Regents -- grew across the region.
The Shenendehowa Central School District reported the most students -- 64 percent of all graduates -- earning the advanced diplomas in the region last year.
Shen High School Principal Ron Agostinoni said the school’s expectations are such that, as most students work through the curriculum, they will inevitably move closer and closer to meeting the requirements for the advanced diploma. Most students take four years of math and science, as well as three years of a world language; those school expectations go beyond state requirements but also set students up for the advanced diploma.
“The priority here is to make sure students are maximizing their academic potential, and one of the positive unintended consequences of that is the number of advanced Regents diplomas,” he said. “Most of our students are set up to achieve the highest level of diploma.”
Niskayuna, Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake, Guilderland and North Colonie school districts all rank among the top schools in the region in terms of advanced diplomas. But districts across the region, including a handful of rural districts, also saw their advanced diploma rates climb last year.
Stillwater schools, for instance, improved their advanced diploma rate from 47 percent in 2016 to more than 62 percent last year, according to the state data.