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MaryEllen Elia: Pathways To Graduation

In a few more weeks, another school year will start winding down. And, at the same time, tens of thousands of high school seniors will be gearing up for graduation day.

Last year, more than 78 percent of high school seniors graduated on time, in four years. It’s not enough; for the nearly one in four students who don’t earn a high school diploma, it’s virtually a one way ticket to less success in the future.

But the grad rate is up almost two points from 2014…and up substantially from 10 years ago when fewer than 66 percent of students graduated on time.

In real life terms, that means 23,000 more students earned on-time diplomas in 2015 than in 2005.

This accomplishment is even more remarkable considering our recent graduates had to meet more rigorous requirements to earn a diploma.

In 2012, New York began demanding more of students to graduate. The local diploma—a less rigorous credential—was largely phased out. Students who previously opted for the local credential now had to pass five Regents Exams to graduate with a Regents Diploma.

Since that time, the State’s four year graduation rate has gone up steadily. Even our biggest urban districts have made impressive gains, with graduation rates in New York City approaching all-time highs.

This is a credit to the dedication of our teachers and the hard work of our students.

However, not all the news is good.

In 2015, the graduation rates for Black and Hispanic students continued to lag behind those of their White peers. Only 57 percent of students with disabilities graduated on time, and more than 14,000 students dropped out along the way for various reasons.

We know every child has the potential to graduate. We also know that every child learns differently and should be permitted to demonstrate what he or she knows in different ways.

That’s why the Board of Regents has embraced multiple pathways to graduation. The pathways allow students to concentrate on a subject area of interest to them…and pass an exam in that subject area in place of a fifth Regents exam.

This is not a watering down of graduation requirements—it’s an additional, equally rigorous avenue to a high school diploma.

The Board has already approved nine different pathways in the arts and 30 in the world of Career and Technical Education. There are also pathways in Biliteracy; Science Technology Engineering and Math, known as STEM for short; the humanities; and a new pathway in Occupational Studies.

In my experience, if students are truly interested in a subject, they are more likely to go to school…do the work…stay engaged…and graduate alongside their peers.

Our hope is that by creating multiple opportunities for success even more students will be able to walk across the stage this spring and pick up their diploma, ready for whatever comes next, whether it’s college or the workplace.

We know that for many young people a high school diploma can unlock opportunities that once seemed far out of reach. Every child must be given the chance to earn a diploma and realize these opportunities—especially children from communities where opportunity too often remains a dream instead of becoming a reality.

MaryEllen Elia is New York State Education Commisioner.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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