The great majority of New York State's high school students who graduated last year obtained exemptions from one or more Regents exams that normally would have been required, an educational advocacy group reported.
The New York Equity Coalition, representing 27 organizations on Long Island and across the state, contended in its report that exam waivers granted due to the COVID-19 pandemic may have resulted in inflated graduation rates.
Overall, 82.4% of 2021 graduates obtained exemptions from at least one exam, analysts reported. Newsday's own review found that exemptions extended to thousands of graduates in the Nassau-Suffolk region alone.
Statewide, graduation rates for the high school Class of 2021 rose to an average 86.1% — up 1.3 percentage points from the previous year, according to the state. Those numbers have improved by a total 9.4 points over the past decade.
However, Equity Coalition analysts noted in their report released earlier this week that last year's rise in graduation figures was accompanied by an increase in the number of students who received partial waivers from testing requirements.
Additionally, students who faced particular obstacles to learning received a higher-than-average number of waivers. For example, 84.4% of students from low-income backgrounds obtained exemptions, as did 89% of students with disabilities and 96.6% of students who were English language learners.
For these reasons, analysts said, it was difficult to know whether the rise in graduation rates accurately reflected how well schools had prepared students for the future.
"We know that students and educators have been working incredibly hard in the face of unprecedented challenges these past few years, and that is exactly why New York must maintain its commitment to high expectations, equity and academic excellence for all students," said one coalition leader, Dia Bryant, in a statement.
Bryant is executive director of The Education Trust-New York, a Manhattan-based group that advocates for students, especially those from low-income backgrounds.
Another coalition member, Theresa Sanders, president and CEO of the Urban League of Long Island, said the pandemic had posed challenges for her group's efforts to provide job internships for teens from families with modest incomes.
"A lot of that was shut down over the past two years," Sanders said.
The question of whether high school graduates are adequately prepared for college and careers is taking on increased urgency, as the state embarks on a major review of diploma requirements, including Regents exams. The state Department of Education, led by Commissioner Betty A. Rosa, recently announced that a blue-ribbon advisory commission would begin work on the project this fall.
Department officials sent a statement to Newsday complimenting the new report but adding that more Regents exams would have to be administered before they could determine the extent to which temporary suspensions of exams during the pandemic had affected graduation rates.
There was a series of COVID-related disruptions regarding the Regents exams. They were called off entirely early in the pandemic, in June 2020, then partly restored a year later.
"Students exposed to the virus or who became ill were required to quarantine and miss days of in-person instruction," education officials said. "The department took reasonable actions to protect public health and safety and to ameliorate the negative impact of the pandemic on students and their communities."
Proponents of traditional academic standards, as well as advocates of change, have begun lining up to push their views on graduation requirements.
The Equity Coalition wants to keep Regents exams as graduation requirements, because it believes the exams help maintain standards and measure student progress.
Other groups contend the exams prevent some students who are otherwise qualified from receiving diplomas, and that the state should adopt alternate ways of measuring performance.