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State: Number of HS grads earning advanced Regents diplomas drops

A student uses their calculator to figure out

A student uses their calculator to figure out a math problem on May 1, 2013. Credit: Heather Walsh

The number of high school graduates earning advanced Regents diplomas has dropped on Long Island and statewide, raising doubts of progress in the state's declared efforts to help more students become "college- and career-ready."

Just under 52 percent of Island graduates received Regents Diplomas with Advanced Designation in 2011-12, down from 54.2 percent the previous year, according to academic report cards released this week by the state Department of Education. Statewide numbers dipped to 37 percent from 38 percent.

Since 2011, state authorities have pointed to advanced diplomas as one indicator that students can enter college without being placed in remedial courses. Recipients of such diplomas, for example, must complete high school courses in algebra, geometry and trigonometry -- not only the algebra courses taken by those seeking basic Regents diplomas.

"Colleges like to see students take a challenge," said Russell Stewart, superintendent of Center Moriches schools. "I tell students: 'Take a leap of faith.' "

Center Moriches has bucked the trend, increasing its numbers of graduates with advanced diplomas from 27 percent in 2010 to 43 percent last year.

Though that still leaves the district in the average range, Stewart and his staff expect to improve their record through a variety of extra supports for students. Those include double math periods every other day for teens struggling with algebra and geometry.

Other districts with gains included Manhasset, where the percentage of advanced diploma recipients rose from 79 percent in the 2010-11 school year to 87 percent in 2011-12, and Harborfields, where numbers increased from 68 percent to 75 percent for the same years.

Elsewhere, the numbers generally are down, even in districts with solid academic reputations. Percentages dropped from 74 percent to 63 percent in Bellmore-Merrick; from 42 percent to 33 percent in Island Trees; from 61 percent to 54 percent in East Islip.

Many local school administrators said the state itself must take some responsibility for the downturn. Several years ago, they noted, the state Board of Regents reluctantly eliminated summer administrations of exams in algebra 2/trigonometry and chemistry, after the legislature cut the Regents' testing budget.

Such reductions, administrators said, have made it more difficult for students in their final years of high school to make up failed exams.

"That's a whole group of kids who, because they didn't pass that third math exam, didn't get advanced diplomas," said Charles Murphy, the Island Trees superintendent.

Merryl Tisch of Manhattan, chairman of the Regents board, Wednesday reiterated the state's position that this year's rapid phase-in of higher academic standards, known as the Common Core, eventually will produce better-prepared students. Tisch called the latest drop in diploma figures "an indicator of why the state is so urgent in its timeline."

Bellmore-Merrick's school chief, Henry Kiernan, said his district next year will add an extra lab period for students taking algebra 2/trigonometry, to ensure they have a fair opportunity to pass Regents exams in that subject and earn advanced diplomas.

"We recognized the decline in advanced Regents diplomas at an early stage and have been taking aggressive measures," Kiernan said.

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