Mayor Michael Bloomberg and schools Chancellor Joel Klein announced another year of steady gains in New York City’s public high school graduation rate. At a new high of 59 percent (or 63 percent, if summer graduates are added in), the 2009 graduation rate represented continued impressive growth, Bloomberg said earlier this month, citing “miracle results” for the city’s high school students.

Both Bloomberg and Klein noted, however, that the graduation rate still falls short of goals, with four of every ten students not graduating in four years. The steady rise proves the success of the “Children First” reform agenda, said the mayor. “Our education reform efforts are clearly paying off.”

More Regents means more rigor

The joy over rising graduation rates is tempered by rising concern, because high school graduation requirements are changing. Currently, the graduation rate is the sum of two separate groups – students who earn local diplomas, and those who earn the more demanding Regents credential. (Local diploma recipients must take and pass five Regents exams, whereas Regents graduates take and pass eight Regents, in basic and advanced subjects.)

But in two years, state law directs that the local diploma fades into history and all students will be expected to earn Regents credentials. Will the city see a potential drop in the overall graduation rate when the local diploma is withdrawn? “It is going to be a great challenge to get all our kids to Regents diplomas,” said Bloomberg, when asked whether the stiffer requirements might blunt the upward trajectory of the grad rate.

Race and the diploma gap

This year’s graduation rate represents both local and Regents grads. In 2009, 44 percent earned a Regents credential, and the rest earned local diplomas. The city’s education stats show the Regents diploma rate rising in tandem with overall graduation rates. In 2007, 37 percent of students earned Regents credentials, as did nearly 41 percent in 2008. But even steady 4-point annual gains don’t add up to a future Regents diploma rate that will match the current graduation rate.

The situation for students with special needs and those learning English is grimmer. Fewer than 25 percent of special-needs students graduate with any diploma in four years. About 40 percent of English Language Learners graduate in four years; many more graduate in five or six years. (Just over 80 percent of students in New York state graduate high school in four years.)

The persistent achievement gaps between African-American, Asian, Hispanic and white students are narrowing slowly, school officials noted. In 2005, a 34-point gap separated the average achievements of white and black students. The spread was 37 points between white and Hispanic children. In 2009, the achievement gap narrowed to 27 and 18 points for African-American and Hispanic students respectively. Overall graduation rates for white and Asian students are higher than the city average – 74 and 77 percent, respectively. For the African-American and Hispanic students who together make up 69 percent of the city’s public-school students, grad rates average 54 and 52 percent. “While we haven’t closed the gap, we are closing it,” Chancellor Klein said earlier this month when the graduation rates were announced.

Regents diploma rates follow similar patterns: In 2009, about two out of three white and Asian students graduated with Regents diplomas, compared to just over one out of African-American and Hispanic students.

Gender and grad rate

Across all race, ethnic and socioeconomic categories, girls consistently outperform boys academically with graduation rates up to 20 percent higher than their male counterparts. “Graduation rates for female and male students in each racial and ethnic group [except for American Indians] have improved over time,” said Jonathan Burman of the New York State Education Department. “There has been a gradual narrowing [but] the gains are too slow and are cause for concern.” According to a new national study by the Washington, D.C.-based Center on Education Policy, boys trail girls at every grade level.

“One way of considering the gap in reading is that it would take 8 to 10 years for boys to close the gap with girls – and that would presume average gains by boys and no gains by girls,” said CEP president and co-founder Jack Jennings. Over the wide range of student abilities from high-performing to high-need, girls surpass boys in graduation and Regents diploma rates.

New York education leaders have raised the graduation bar, yet much work remains to bring the majority of the city’s students to Regents-diploma level. Bloomberg calls the task an “enormous challenge, going forward,” but how all students will actually meet the universal Regents requirement in two years is not yet clear.

“We have a long way to go,” said Klein. “I think we have to raise standards even further.”