Why aren’t more students earning Advanced Designation Diplomas?

On Board Online • October 13, 2014

By Cathy Woodruff
Senior Writer

Fewer than a third of high school graduates in New York earn the Regents Diploma with Advanced Designation. The State Education Department has begun to examine why the figure isn’t higher, particularly in the state’s largest cities.

State officials say they want to gather more information on how much access students in different school district have to rigorous coursework and other factors that can affect readiness for college and careers.

While patterns in test scores are one barometer of students’ level of preparation, “we don’t want to reduce ‘college and career readiness’ to test scores,” said Ken Wagner, deputy commissioner for curriculum, assessment and educational technology. “We want to remind everyone that it’s not only about test scores. It’s also about access and persistence through advanced coursework. That’s what kids really need in order to be ready for what’s next.”

When 2013 graduation rates were released in June, officials noted that the portion of graduates who earned a Regents Diploma with Advanced Designation barely budged over the last five years. Overall graduation rates improved modestly over the same period.

“There’s clearly a lack of equity in access in the course offerings necessary for the Advanced Designation,” Regents Chancellor Merryl H. Tisch said at the time.

The latest diploma counts show
wide gaps in the portion of graduating students earning the higher level degrees, depending on differences in racial or
ethnic background and district wealth or poverty. According to SED:

  • ‑43 percent of white graduates earned a Regents Diploma with Advanced Designation, compared with 12 percent of Hispanics and 9 percent of black students.
  • ‑Statewide, about 31 percent of all graduates earned a Regents Diploma with Advanced Designation, but far fewer did in Buffalo (7.4 percent), Rochester (5.6 percent), Syracuse (5.9 percent), and Yonkers (7.1 percent).

The preliminary data suggests that the large city districts have a particularly hard time providing coursework that would prepare their students to pass the additional Regents exams needed for Advanced Designation diplomas. The needed courses include multiple options in the physical sciences (including earth science, chemistry and physics) and multiple mathematics options (including
Regents geometry and Algebra 2/Trigonometry).

Education officials acknowledge that the district-level data gathered on the availability of coursework is incomplete and continues to be refined and expanded. But even so, they say, wide gaps are apparent in what districts are offering — and in what students are getting — in the way of advanced courses.

Only 79 percent of high schools in large city school districts were recorded as offering the minimum coursework required for the Advanced Designation Diploma, compared with 99 percent of rural and average-need districts, 98 percent of low-need (affluent) and urban/suburban school districts, and 95 percent of schools in New York City.

Just 43 percent of high schools in large city districts were classified as offering the “minimum plus two” courses. In New York City, that figure was 39 percent; in rural districts, it was 83 percent. The figure was more than 90 percent in the urban/suburban and average need categories and 88 percent in the low-need category.

The analysis does not yet account for some other offerings that may provide paths to Advanced Designation Diplomas, such as Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) courses and exams. It also does not
reflect access to necessary advanced coursework in the arts, career and technical education (CTE) or foreign languages.

Nonetheless, “the takeaway is really that not everyone is having access to this advanced coursework that we know is important for college and career readiness,” said Wagner of the State Education Department. “We’re just trying to shine a light on some patterns that people would want to talk about on a local level.”

In Rochester, Superintendent Bolgen Vargas said his district’s offerings of Advanced Placement and other high school courses with “rigorous, relevant content” have eroded over many years. He attributes the decline chiefly to a failure to prepare students in the early years so that they are able and inspired to tackle advanced courses in high school.

Vargas noted that Rochester is engaged on many fronts in efforts to raise academic achievement for students. He predicts that the earliest initiatives — including dramatic expansion of full-day pre-kindergarten and kindergarten, expanded learning time in more than a dozen schools and vigorous summer learning programs for all students — will ultimately have the greatest impact on raising academic rigor in high school and graduation rates.

“Getting children ready for college and careers doesn’t begin in high school,” Vargas said. “We do know that systemic reform takes time. We have a long way to go here. This will require hard work, but we are committed to this.”

Meanwhile, some upstate rural districts, that face challenges related to their remote locations and sparse student populations, have managed to maintain access to advanced coursework through collaborations with area community colleges and through distance learning initiatives with other districts.

At the Randolph Central School

District in Cattaraugus County, students take higher level courses from high school teachers who also are certified as instructors with Jamestown Community College, said Superintendent Kim Moritz. The melded classes enable students to gain free college-level credits while also completing coursework that prepares them for Regents exams.

As a result, Moritz estimated that about half of Randolph’s graduates earn an Advanced Designation diploma each year, far more than the statewide

“Our students are very motivated to take the JCC classes,” she said. “Our kids want to get as many community college credits under their belts as possible.”

At Fillmore Central School District in Allegany County, students are able to take a variety of advanced courses through video links that enable students in multiple places to take classes from the same teacher at the same time.

Fillmore’s distance learning options also include credit-bearing classes from several colleges, including JCC, Genesee Community College and Alfred State. More than 40 percent of Fillmore graduates last year earned Regents Diplomas with Advanced Designation.

“Distance learning is a great equalizer for rural school districts to provide rich coursework,” said Fillmore Superintendent Ravo Root.

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