Exemptions boost Buffalo graduation rate

The pandemic forced the cancellation of Regents exams last year, which opened the door to many high school seniors graduating without having to pass the once-mandated tests

Buffalo School Superintendent Kriner Cash was ecstatic. The city’s high school graduation rate last year jumped 11.6 percent – eight times greater than the increase statewide. Cash proclaimed he was extraordinarily proud of the Class of 2020,” terming the increased graduation rate in the midst of the pandemic “a tremendous positive.”

Left unsaid: 22 percent of the graduating class – 423 students – was exempted from passing mandated Regents exams, which had been cancelled because of the pandemic. Instead, students needed only to receive a passing grade in their individual classes, and the district adopted a generous grading policy to help struggling students succeed.

“Those kind of grading policies are policies that help the school district,” said Sam Radford III, co-chair of We The Parents and immediate past president of the District Parent Coordinating Council in Buffalo. “It makes it seem like they’re accomplishing something.”


Exemptions at suburban, rural districts in WNY


District officials later acknowledged to Investigative Post the exemptions helped boost the graduation rate. But not by much.

“It’s a small factor compared to all of the work that had been done, the prep work that had been done in previous years,” said Toyia Wilson, associate superintendent of secondary school leadership.

She credits new innovative high schools, a focus on schools with low graduation rates and improved tracking of student achievement.

Buffalo’s increased graduation rate was the highest seen at a Big Five City School District and double that of neighboring Rochester. 


Dowdall discusses her reporting on WBEN


Buffalo’s graduation rate had inched up in previous years, from 63.8 percent in 2017, to 64.5 percent in 2018 and 64.7 percent in 2019. The rate for 2020 was 76.3 percent.

“That big a jump is so rare that it normally triggers an investigation, Radford said.

Many students at districts like Buffalo, where there are large minority and low-income populations, aren’t taking Regents exams until their senior year, said Dia Bryant, interim executive director at The Education Trust-New York, a nonprofit that advocates for educational justice for students.

That’s one reason why so many Buffalo students received exemptions, she said.

“The bottom line was they had way too many Regents to take in their 12th grade year such that they were not prepared if the Regents were cancelled,” Bryant said.

Exemptions statewide

A student must pass at least four Regents exams, one in each major subject area, to earn a high school diploma in New York state. The decision to cancel exams in June and August of last year posed a problem for seniors who had yet to take the required exams. 

The state’s solution? Grant exemptions. 

Instead, students only had to earn a passing grade in any class where they were required to take a Regents exam. Using that criteria, graduation rates grew statewide by 1.4 percent for the 2019-20 school year. 

The “exemptions were a factor in the increase,” the state education department said in a January press release, although it couldn’t say how much.

Buffalo’s 22 percent exemption rate, while higher than the state average of 12 percent, was substantially lower than in Rochester and Syracuse.


Exemptions granted in large urban districts

District Graduates % exemptions 2020 graduation rate
% change from 2019
Rochester 1,343 51 68.2 5.2
Syracuse 1,044 45 70.7 6.2
Buffalo 1,889 22 76.3 11.6
Yonkers 1,712 20 90.6 2.6
New York City 58,704 17 78.8 1.5
Statewide 171,672 12 84.8 1.4
Source: New York Department of Education.

High school seniors in larger urban districts and some other high-need systems accounted for a disproportionate number of students who received exemptions. Why? They’re more likely to wait until their senior year to take the required Regents exams.

“Many of our students are not taking Regents along the way from grades nine through 12, and something’s happening in the senior year where they have a lot to do.” Bryant said. “Last year we saw evidence of that and it is disproportionately the same groups of students.” 

Grading policy 

Buffalo schools closed their doors to in-person learning the middle of March last year because of the pandemic and shifted to distance learning. The state Department of Education announced in early April that it was cancelling Regents exams and would accept a passing class grade for purposes of graduation. 

Buffalo schools announced later that month that any student with a passing grade at the time distance learning was implemented would receive a passing grade for the year. Those failing could submit extra credit work to earn a passing grade. 

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Wilson, the associate superintendent, said Buffalo looked to other schools when crafting their grading policy, noting New York City schools “were doing something very similar.” 

New York City high schools didn’t freeze any grades, however. Coursework continued for all students. No failing grades were issued, but students not passing at the end of the school year were marked as “in progress” and given extra time to complete course requirements. 

Buffalo school officials told Investigative Post that in January 2020 they had estimated a large increase in the upcoming June graduation rate. That projection was predicated on seniors shy of graduation requirements passing up to two Regents exams and six classes. Students typically take six to eight classes their senior year.

The district estimated 1,771 seniors would graduate, an increase of 6.6 percent over the previous year. 

Instead, 1,889 graduated, including those who received exemptions, an increase of 11.6 percent. 

“When you’re looking at coming out of January with a big jump at 7 percent … going into June you are really looking like you’re on track to really hit that 10 points as far as percentage increase, or at least come close,” Wilson said, “And we did.” 

“I really feel like we are where we’re supposed to be as far as graduation rate.”

Differences between high schools

The percentage of students who graduated thanks to the Regents exemptions varied greatly between high schools. The highest was 64 percent at Academy School, the district’s alternative high school that’s designated for students with disciplinary issues, followed by 56 percent at the Math Science Technology Preparatory School. The lowest: 3 percent at City Honors. 

Of the 423 students who received exemptions districtwide, 49.6 percent received one, 22.5 percent received two, 13 percent received three, 10.9 percent received four and 4 percent received five.  


Exemptions by high school

High School Graduates % receiving exemption 2020 graduation rate
Academy School 14 64 20
Math Science Technology Prep 95 56 67
Pathways Academy 24 50 22
East Community 42 48 48
Lafayette International 77 48 83
International Prep 92 34 73
Newcomer Academy at Lafayette 80 33 70
South Park 164 30 72
Burgard 79 27 67
Culinary Art, Hospital 73 26 85
Emerson School of Hospitality 86 23 84
McKinley Vocational 217 23 87
Academy of Visual and Performing Arts 82 21 92
Bennett 59 15 88
Research Laboratory 26 15 96
Hutchinson Central Technical 254 11 89
Leonardo Da Vinci 87 8 95
Frederick Law Olmsted 99 4 94
City Honors 153 3 99
Middle Early College 74 3 96
Source: Buffalo Board of Education.

Minority students received 88 percent of exemptions given while making up 77 percent of the graduating class. Economically disadvantaged students made up 71 percent of the graduating class and received 85 percent of the exemptions.

Wilson said she did not notice the disproportionate number of minority students who received exemptions.

Bryant did, though.

“Throughout the state of New York, students of color, those from low-income backgrounds, students with disabilities and our multilingual learners were students who were more likely to receive exemptions. When we drop down and we look at Buffalo’s data, the trend is the same.”

Radford said the exemptions made it possible for students to graduate lacking essential knowledge.

“I think anybody who’s being honest with you will tell you that there were students who were struggling to pass exams, multiple years,” he said. “All of a sudden, not having to pass the exam gave them a pathway to graduation that they would not have otherwise, and had not otherwise, achieved.”

Bryant, an African American and former teacher, said she shares Radford’s concerns about students graduating without being proficient in basic skills.

“I’m thinking about that kid that showed up to me in grade seven reading at a third grade level and I’m concerned about how they will fare, particularly if they look like me,” she said.

The state Education Department will administer only four Regents exams in June, one in each federally required subject area. Scores won’t be tied to graduation and a similar exemption policy will be put in place.