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NY graduation rates stable; Buffalo erases gains

Carolyn Thompson, Associated Press

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) -- New York state's high school graduation rate held steady at 74 percent for the first class of students required to meet stricter graduation requirements, proving, education officials said Monday, that raising the bar was the right move.

Future classes will have to work even harder for a diploma as the state continues with reforms intended to make sure graduates are ready to start college or a career. Right now, the majority of students are not, statistics for the class of 2012 released Monday show.

"The rates may be stable even with increased rigor, but stable doesn't equal success," Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said. "Tens of thousands of students are still leaving high school with no diploma and fewer options for the future. And sadly, most of those students who do graduate aren't ready for college or jobs that provide family-sustaining wages."

Students who entered high school in 2008 were the first who did not have the option of graduating with a so-called local diploma, meaning they had to earn a Regents diploma requiring them to pass five Regents exams with a score of at least 65 percent.

About 30 percent of students overall graduated with a more advanced version of the Regents diploma, considered an indicator of college- and career-readiness. Among racial groups, 9 percent of black students and 12 percent of Hispanic students met the benchmark, compared with 42 percent of white students and 50 percent of Asian students.

The overall graduation rate for white students was nearly 28 percentage points higher than for black and Hispanic students, Education Commissioner John King Jr. said.

"We're just finishing up the first full year of implementation of the Regents' reforms," King said. "The graduation rates, the achievement gaps and the painfully low rate of college and career readiness statewide are just more evidence of the need to act decisively to fully implement those reforms."

September's incoming freshmen will be the first class to receive instruction under more rigorous Common Core learning standards throughout high school and the first to take Regents exams that reflect the new standards, adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia.

"We continue to raise the bar and our students continue to rise to the challenge," Chancellor Dennis Walcott said in New York City, where the graduation rate held steady at 60 percent. "As standards increase for students at all grade levels, we must continue to support the reforms that have enabled these gains and not turn back the clock on our students."

Billy Easton, executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education, characterized a gulf in graduation rates between wealthy and needy school districts as "a gaping wound" and said the state has not done enough to fairly fund schools.

In addition to New York City, three of the other Big 5 districts saw graduation rates generally hold: Yonkers at 66 percent, Syracuse at 48 percent and Rochester at 43 percent, down 2 percentage points from 2011. Buffalo, however, erased the previous year's gains, dropping by 7 percentage points to 47 percent.

Buffalo Superintendent Pamela Brown set an 80 percent target by 2018 when she took over a year ago and outlined strategies including optional summer school for all students and staff development.

"We are very optimistic that increased graduation rates will follow," she said.

Parent activist Samuel Radford III decried a lack of immediacy for those currently in the district of 30,000 students.

"We spend almost a billion every year to get 45, 46 percent graduation rates and there's no sense of urgency?" he said.

The district's spending plan totals $908 million next year.