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Long IslandEducation

High school graduation rate flat on LI, inches up statewide

More than 300 teachers, school board members and

More than 300 teachers, school board members and parents gather at South Side High School in Rockville Centre on Feb. 7, 2017, for a forum on diploma standards and Regents exam passing rates. Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

High school graduation rates for the Class of 2016 flattened out across Long Island in the spring compared with the year previous, while statewide numbers showed modest improvement, state education officials reported Friday.

Results remained substantially above the state average in Nassau and Suffolk counties, though many of the area’s teachers and parents are pressing for changes in the state’s diploma requirements that they consider onerous.

Statewide, 79.4 percent of students who entered high school in 2012 got diplomas last spring, according to the state Education Department. That graduation rate was up from 78.1 percent in spring 2015.

On the Island, 88.9 percent of students across the region’s 124 public school districts graduated in the spring, compared with 89.3 percent the year before. Those results excluded graduation rates for the Island Trees district in Levittown, which was unable to transmit its figures to the Education Department because of a technical glitch.

Local results were evenly mixed, with 52 districts showing at least slight improvements in numbers of students graduating, 45 districts showing slight declines, and most of the remainder unchanged.

Several school leaders on the Island said Friday that they and their colleagues will continue pushing for better results.

“I think everyone is dissatisfied when any one student doesn’t walk across that stage to get their diploma,” said Lorna Lewis, superintendent of Plainview-Old Bethpage schools and a past president of the Nassau County Council of School Superintendents. “That’s our pride and joy.”

Robert Feirsen, the Garden City schools chief and co-chair of a regional partnership with colleges, agreed. “None of us will accept the fact that some kids are not destined to graduate,” he said.

Other regional officials noted that schools are dealing with increasing numbers of students who come from low-income homes or who speak limited English.

“If rates are essentially flat, then I would say we’re holding our own, given the other changes that are going on,” said Julie Lutz, chief operating officer of Eastern Suffolk BOCES.

In Albany, state education authorities who are pushing for more state financial assistance for schools said the achievement gap remains wide between students in poor and affluent areas of the state — especially for those with limited English. New York City recorded a particularly sharp drop in the percentage of students categorized as English Language Learners who did not graduate on schedule.

Graduation rates are a subject of widespread dissatisfaction in New York State, which has long ranked in the middle-of-the-pack among states in percentages of students receiving diplomas. Most students here pass Regents exams in four or five subjects in order to graduate, a higher bar than that set in many parts of the country.

“Is the trend going upward as fast as I would like? No,” Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said. “Is it going in the right direction? Yes.”

Albany officials noted that they are continuing to provide more options for students who found it difficult to pass Regents examinations required for graduation. In June, for example, the Board of Regents, which sets statewide educational policy, approved new rules allowing more students to file appeals whenever they fail to meet the usual diploma requirements.

The state has not yet tabulated numbers of students who graduated because of that change.

Until recently, the state has pressed for higher graduation standards, requiring more and more students to pass Regents exams, which are written at a college-prep level.

In 2011, state education officials phased out Regents Competency Tests, known as RCTs, which were far less difficult than Regents exams and were administered to many students with learning disabilities.

But there has been pushback.

On Tuesday night, for example, more than 300 teachers, school board members and parents gathered at South Side High School in Rockville Centre for a forum on diploma standards. A procession of parents and others came to microphones to declare that students were at risk of not graduating, with several calling for reinstatement of the RCT minimum-competency tests.

“We must do more to expand diploma options for all students, because the ability to pass a Regents exam should not dictate or limit a student’s potential to succeed after school,” said state Sen. John E. Brooks (D-Seaford), one of the panelists at the forum.

Brooks went on to say that he himself struggled academically in high school because of an undiagnosed learning disorder.

The forum was organized by a Democratic colleague, state Sen. Todd Kaminsky of Long Beach. Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa of the Bronx attended and participated in a panel discussion, as did Roger Tilles of Great Neck, who represents Long Island on the Regents board.

Kaminsky and Tilles also teamed up a year ago in an appearance before a rally on diploma issues held in Cedarhurst.

One of those issues revolves around graduation certificates known as Career Development and Occupational Studies Commencement Credentials. Such credentials are available to students both in regular and special education who meet certain training requirements, but do not score well enough on Regents exams to receive diplomas.

Growing numbers of parents and educators, including several at Tuesday’s forum, have said that the certificates are worthless in adult life because employers demand some form of diploma.

Some of the critics want the state to return to the use of IEP diplomas, which recognized special education students who completed their individualized training plans.

IEP diplomas were eliminated by the Regents starting in the 2013-14 school year. One argument leveled against such documents was that completion of individualized plans, often involving life skills such as dressing oneself, did not reflect achievement generally associated with a high school diploma.

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