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Commentary: RCSD's dumbed-down diploma giveaway 

Something hasn't smelled quite right about the Rochester City School District’s rising graduation rate the last few years.

Anyone who knows anything about graduation rates — the rate at which students leave high school with a diploma in four years — know they tend to stay flat, that progress is incremental, and any noticeable gains are made over lengthy stretches of time.

But state Department of Education data released a couple months ago showed that Rochester’s graduation rate climbed to 63 percent last year, representing a 4-percent jump from the previous year and the biggest year-to-year increase among the state’s largest city school districts.

Between 2017 and 2019, Rochester’s graduation rate shot up more than 6 percent, whereas the statewide average rose barely 1 percent over that span.

When the data was released, Rochester School Board President Van White crowed that the rate was the highest in 20 years. “The fact that our graduation rate is the highest it’s been in two decades is not an accident,” White said.  
click to enlarge Rochester School Board President Van White. - FILE PHOTO
  • FILE PHOTO
  • Rochester School Board President Van White.


Indeed, it was no accident. It was the result of a dumbed-down diploma giveaway.

A new analysis of New York graduation rates shows that Rochester leads all large urban school districts by a wide margin in shepherding students toward the least academically-rigorous sheepskin.

Researchers found that 40 percent of the 1,315 students who graduated from a Rochester public school last year earned something called a Career Developmental and Occupational Studies (CDOS) diploma, a credential intended to ready its recipients for “entry-level employment” rather than college or a skilled trade.

By contrast, 12 percent of graduates in Buffalo and 16 percent of Syracuse graduates got the CDOS diploma last year. Just 1 percent of the 57,000 students who graduated high school in New York City got the CDOS.

The research was conducted by Education Trust for the New York Equity Coalition, a group of education, civil rights, parent, and business organizations dedicated to raising student achievement.

The CDOS is among a new class of diplomas the state Board of Regents dreamed up in 2016 as a way to give students an alternative path out of high school without having to pass five or more Regents exit exams as has been required of graduates for generations.

These diplomas, known as “4+1 pathways,” demand that students pass four Regents exams or a state-approved alternative test and demonstrate competency in a fifth area of study. The CDOS is one of those fifth areas, along with humanities, arts, and career and technical training, to name a few.

The CDOS credential is a substandard one. Until 2016, it was only available to students with disabilities as a supplement to a high school diploma.

A state Education Department question-and-answer sheet on the CDOS published just two years ago reads in part: “The CDOS commencement credential is not considered equivalent to receipt of a high school diploma.”

The Regents invented the “4+1 pathways” as a way to goose graduation rates after recognizing that too many students, particularly in large urban districts, weren’t earning a diploma the traditional way.

Researchers acknowledged in their analysis that these pathways have their place and didn’t question whether the CDOS should be an option. But they wondered whether some school districts, namely Rochester, were disproportionately using the CDOS as a crutch. That’s a good bet.

“These troubling findings could signify problems with instructional rigor, inadequate support, and lack of equitable access to challenging coursework,” the report read. “If historically underserved groups of students are receiving a high school diploma that does not prepare them for success in college, careers, and active citizenship then our education system is doing them a life-altering disservice.”

An RCSD spokesman has said the district was reviewing the research and taking “big steps” to ensure all students graduate high school.

The analysis comes as the Regents are holding a series of hearings on yet more possible changes to graduation requirements, including scrapping the Regents exams altogether. One of those hearings is scheduled for East High School at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, March 11.

State education officials insist the changes are not about watering-down standards, but rather about providing different avenues to graduation.

But when 40 percent of a district’s graduating class is walking down an avenue that was previously reserved for students with disabilities, it doesn’t just not smell quite right, it stinks.

David Andreatta is CITY’s editor. He can be reached at dandreatta@rochester-citynews.com.

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