For the sixth year in a row and 11th time in 13 years, New York City’s high school graduation rate is up, according to statistics released by the state Education Department. In June 2018, 72.7% of the students who had started high school four years earlier in the city’s public high schools had earned a diploma. (By August, even more had graduated.) That’s 26.2 points higher than the rate in 2005 — a truly impressive gain.
In 1986, when I was an employee of the city school system, I conducted the first analysis of graduation rate numbers. From then until the early 2000s, the city’s graduation rate was stuck at or near 50%. Though things began to change for the better under Mayor Bloomberg, Mayor de Blasio has rightly taken some credit for the improvement, which has continued throughout his mayoralty.
Critics allege that the improvement reflects nothing more than shifting state standards, which make it easier to obtain a diploma, and that the numbers are meaningless if not all high school graduates are deemed “college-ready.” Both criticisms are unfair — and the second is particularly wrong-headed.
Government statistics always deserve our skepticism, but in this case the facts are clear. We’ve seen steady and sustained improvement in educational opportunity for the city’s young people, regardless of attempts to wipe that away.
It is true that the state has changed graduation requirements over the last 20 years, but the direction of those changes — making graduation tougher or easier — is not as simple as it sounds. Twenty years ago, the state made it harder to earn a diploma by requiring all students to pass a series of Regents exams in order to graduate. Prior to these changes, these exams were only required of college-bound or honors students; many students did not even take them. Over the years, the state has tweaked the exam requirement, most recently allowing students to substitute an alternative assessment in math, arts, or career and technical education for the Regents exam in Social Studies.
Whatever the impact of these policy changes, they apply equally to all public schools in the state. If they were artificially boosting the city’s graduation rates, we would expect the same statewide. But in fact, the gap between New York City and the rest of the state is closing. For the class graduating in 2005, the city’s graduation rate was 26.2 points below that of the rest of the state; today, that gap is down to 8.5 points. While there is still room for improvement in the city, the slow and steady gains already achieved are real and worthy of applause.
Critics also argue that the graduation rate data are somehow meaningless because not every diploma indicates college-readiness. But is that what high school graduation should always symbolize? The United States has never approached universal college attendance or completion. The most recent statistics from the Census Bureau indicate that most Americans still do not graduate college. Among all adults over 25, 39% hold an Associate’s, Bachelor’s or higher degree. In the younger cohort — those between 25 and 34 — close to 90% have a high school diploma and only 34.4% hold a Bachelor’s or higher degree.
A high school diploma can be valuable in itself — not just as a marker of college-readiness. For most Americans, it is their highest level of educational attainment. Do we want and need more students to graduate college? Emphatically yes. Should we expect that all students will do so? Absolutely not.
New York State’s recognition of alternative pathways — the process by which high school students can earn credit for career and technical training — is a step in the right direction. But more needs to be done to recognize that a large segment of our high school students will not be headed to success in college. These students should be supported and prepared for life after high school with the same level of investment as their college-bound peers. They need career training in high school and short, targeted, high-quality programs in community and technical colleges. The City needs to open more high schools focused on this pathway for young people who seek them.
Meanwhile, the mayor’s critics need to find something else to complain about and give credit where it is due: to the teachers and other educators who work in the city’s high schools and to both former Mayor Bloomberg and current Mayor de Blasio.
This piece originally appeared at New York Daily News
Ray Domanico is the director of education policy at the Manhattan Institute.
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