After years of incremental gains, celebrated by leaders at the Department of Education and City Hall, the high school progress report grades released Monday show a downward trend—the first such tilt since the reports were created in 2007, and the first official signal of potential problems in the city’s high school graduation rate.

This year, fewer high schools were awarded grades of A or B, DOE officials said: 38 percent of high schools got As last year, compared with 32 percent this year. The progress scores this year measured and rewarded college readiness as well as academic progress made by high-need students—particularly black and Hispanic boys, English language learners, and children with special needs.

So the fall in grades from last year to this is less significant than the fact that so many schools are falling short. The lower grades seem to suggest significant obstacles to high-school success, especially in light of a looming policy change that will close off one avenue that lower-performing students have taken to get out of high school.

Racial disparities, rising standards

Rising since the mayor took office in 2002, the graduation rate has climbed from roughly 50 percent to over 60 percent. This citywide average masks a lower graduation rate for boys of color—the focus of the mayor’s new Young Men’s Initiative—which hovers near 50 percent.

This gap reflects a national crisis, according to a new study released by the National Center for Economic Statistics, which showed that boys who live in poverty struggle mightily to succeed in high schools: More than twice as many black and Hispanic students quit school before graduation than do white students, according to the NCES. Four times as many children living in low-income families leave school before graduation than do their better-heeled peers. Girls stay in school longer, and graduate more often, than their brothers.

These national data are echoed in the Progress Grades posted Monday: Schools with many struggling students are not serving all of them, leaving behind too many boys and too many students who are new to the English language or who have special education needs. And they’re visible in recent graduation numbers.

Even as graduation averages inch upward—for all students, including students of color—standards for high school graduation in the city have become more stringent. With the 2012 phaseout of the less-rigorous Local Diploma in favor of Regents diplomas for all New York students, the overall graduation rate seems primed for a tough hit, as reported by City Limits in 2008 and 2010.

Over the past three years, no more than half of high school graduates earned Regents diplomas (51 percent in 2010, 46 percent in 2009, and 43 percent in 2008)—as of this year, the only credential that signifies graduation. Black and Hispanic students earned fewer Regents credentials in 2010: 44 percent of black students and 43 percent of Hispanic students earned Regents diplomas in four years, with more girls than boys graduating across the board.

The balance of New York City’s graduates earned local diplomas—which are no longer awarded, because the State Regents, with the City’s support and agreement, adopted more rigorous graduation requirements. (These new requirements do not, however, confer college readiness: While scores of 65 on the Regents exams net a Regents diploma, a student needs to score in the 75- to 80-point range to expect to earn Cs in college.)

Mind the gap

When the phase-out of the Local Diploma was years off, then-Schools Chancellor Joel Klein often said that New York City students and teachers would rise to the challenge and meet the more stringent graduation requirements when push came to shove and the local diploma “went away.” But toward the end of his tenure Klein’s tone shifted: “While we haven’t closed the gap, we are closing it,” the then-chancellor said last year, when graduation rates were announced by the state. (Klein resigned in December.)

The mayor put things more plainly: “It is going to be a great challenge to get all our kids to Regents diplomas,” Mayor Bloomberg said in 2010, when asked whether the stiffer requirements might blunt the grad rate.

Whether the mayor’s Young Men’s Initiative, aimed at lifting academic and professional outcomes for young men and boys of color, will succeed—or even outlast the current administration—is a question with huge human stakes.

“Even though skin color in America no longer determines a child’s fate—sadly, it tells us more about a child’s future than it should,” the mayor said in August, when he launched the initiative, a $127 million public-private partnership that will focus on education ($18 million for mentoring and literacy; $24 million for gap-narrowing schools) and employment (nearly $25 million to help black and Hispanic men seek and secure employment).

As of October, the initiative has ramped up literacy tutoring for up to 1,000 young people reading below eighth grade level—an important but tiny inroad, given that tens of thousands of young men of color are in need of academic support.

On Monday, Chancellor Dennis Walcott said, “Our message to schools is clear: students need to be meeting a higher bar and doing more rigorous work if they are going to be ready for life after high school.” But unlike his predecessor, the chancellor gave no promise, and no guarantee, that city schools will succeed in getting more children to reach that bar—and sail past it.

Meanwhile, senior DOE official Shael Polakow-Suransky says that better tests will improve instruction – and achievement. “If I’m a teacher,” he told The New York Times, “I’m going to look closely at what that exam is measuring and key my curriculum and my work to passing that exam. That is the reality of what high-stakes exams are designed to do.” This seems to suggest that teaching to the test is the norm for high-stakes exams – and that upping the testing ante will necessarily ramp up instruction.