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Filler: Free pass on the Regents has a cost

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For a few Long Island districts, last year’s COVID-19 exemption from the requirement that students pass four Regents exams to graduate had no impact.

Not one of the 2020 graduates of the Jericho school district needed the exemption; all 257 passed the required Regents before senior year. The same goes for all 211 graduates of the North Shore school district, the 212 in Miller Place, the 96 in Mattituck-Cutchogue and the nine from Fishers Island.

By the standards of such districts and dozens more where just a few students utilized waivers, state graduation requirements are not a significant obstacle.

But in high-needs districts the waiver had broad consequences, boosting graduation rates amid classroom closures and implying some students were granted diplomas but shortchanged on education.

In the Wyandanch school district, 31% of 2020 graduates employed the Regents exemption. In Hempstead, 46% did. In Roosevelt, it was 44%, in Amityville, 30%.

But would most of those kids have graduated anyway, had the Regents been administered? The data indicates some would not have.

From 2019 to 2020 the waiver-aided June graduation rate jumped from 73% to 84.1% in Amityville. In Hempstead, it leapt from 57.1% to 72.2%. In Roosevelt, it increased from 65.2% to 71.8%. And in Wyandanch, it rose from 44.4% to 53.7%.

An analysis of the data by the nonprofit advocate The Education Trust-New York shows the same trends statewide.

New York City students were almost twice as likely to need waivers as those elsewhere in the state, and students in high-needs districts were eight times more likely to use an exemption to graduate than in high-wealth districts. Districts serving mostly minorities were 2 ½ times as likely to use an exemption to graduate a student than those serving mostly whites.

If the purpose of a K-12 education were awarding a diploma, the 2020 numbers in struggling districts would be a triumph. But the point of a K-12 education is bestowing knowledge and skills, and these numbers imply a degree of failure.

The instinct is to blame the schools where the exemptions drove graduation rates up.

But as different as the schools of the rich and the poor are, they may be the thing children have most in common. And for many kids in poor communities, the hours spent in their "bad" school are their best hours.

The teachers of rich and poor and white and Black and urban and rural children are often more similar than the parents, in their ability to care for kids.

The classrooms of the rich and poor are more similar than their bedrooms.

Their school meals are more similar than the ones eaten elsewhere.

Their school gymnasiums are more similar than their basements, their schoolyards more similar than their backyards, their school libraries more similarly stocked than their home collections.

COVID test waivers, though justified by circumstances, intensified what George W. Bush called "the soft bigotry of low expectations." By lowering graduation standards this year, New York excused itself from the obligation of fully educating many students in poor and minority-dominated districts, and even some students in prosperous districts, granting them diplomas instead.

The schools that serve these kids can get better, and should.

But the achievement gaps won’t narrow until we confront the vast differences between the way our young "haves" and "have-nots" are treated outside of school.

And altering the rules to grant more diplomas to students we’ve failed to educate, as we did last year and are doing again this year, won’t help.

Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.

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