Regents exemptions varied among districts

Buffalo wasn't the only WNY school district where a significant share of graduates benefitted from being exempted from taking Regents exams last year.

Buffalo wasn’t the only local school district who graduated a lot of students who failed to pass Regents exams last year.

The exams were cancelled because of the pandemic, which enabled students to obtain an exemption that allowed them to graduate, provided they earned a passing grade in any subject where exams were scheduled.

Twenty-two percent of those graduating from Buffalo schools did so thanks to the exemption. Close behind them were the graduating classes of Newfane Central School District (21 percent) and Cheektowaga Central School District (20 percent).

On balance 8.9 percent of seniors in school districts in Erie, Niagara and Chautauqua counties obtained an exemption that enabled them to graduate. That compares with a statewide average of 12 percent.

School leaders acknowledge that their exemptions boosted their graduation rate.

“The increase in graduation rate definitely had something to do with the exemptions,” said Scott Zipp, principal at Cheektowaga Central High School, whose graduation rate jumped 8 percent.

“Are there a couple kids who might’ve not succeeded on an exam that were able to graduate? I would definitely say yes,” Zipp said.


Dowdall discusses her reporting on WBEN


Exemptions impacted the Niagara Falls School District’s rate, too, said Superintendent Mark Laurrie. The graduation rate didn’t change, remaining at 64 percent in both 2019 and 2020. Without exemptions, he said the graduation rate could’ve dropped by 5 percent.

“I think it helped,” Laurrie said. “Obviously it was a positive for these students.”

At the other extreme, only 4 percent of students received exemptions who attend Williamsville Central Schools, the region’s second-largest district. Their graduation rate remained unchanged at 95 percent. 

Why so few exemptions? Most students take their Regents exams before their senior year, said Marie Balen, Williamsville’s assistant superintendent for instruction.

“By the time you reach the 12th grade level you are already having those items behind you,” she  said.

Comparing districts

An Investigative Post analysis of data from the state Education Department found 12 of 55 schools districts in Erie, Chautauqua and Niagara counties had an exemption rate higher than the area average of 8.9 percent.

Chautauqua County, the most rural county of the three, had a lower average rate of exemptions than Erie and Niagara counties. 

Exemptions by county

County Graduates % receiving exemption
Erie 8,220 9.2
Niagara 1,955 9.6
Chautauqua 1,278 6.3
Source: State Education Department.

Students at high-needs districts in urban and suburban areas like Niagara Falls, Jamestown and Cheektowaga-Sloan received exemptions at a higher rate than students at high-needs districts in rural areas like Silver Creek and Cassadaga Valley. 


Exemptions by district type

District type Graduates
% receiving exemption
Average Need 7,367 5.9
Urban/Suburban High Need 996 10.5
Rural High Need 289 6.2
Low Need 912 4.4
Buffalo 1,889 22.4
Source: Stated Education Department.

Many of Buffalo’s largest, suburban schools clustered around the regional average rate of 8.9 percent. They include West Seneca and Kenmore-Tonawanda. The best of the large average-needs districts: Frontier Central. None of its 313 graduates needed an exemption, state data showed.

Impact in Cheektowaga 

While Buffalo school officials contend the exemptions played a small role in its 11.6 percent increase in their graduation rate, educators elsewhere don’t dispute the impact in their district.

“It definitely had to have an impact on it because students need a certain amount of Regents exams to graduate,” said Zipp, principal at Cheektowaga Central High School. “If they received an exemption, well obviously there’s no chance of failing that so they were going to graduate.”


One in five Buffalo graduates received an exemption


The exemptions weren’t the only reason for the district’s 8 percent increase in its graduation rate. Zipp said the 2019 graduation rate of 79 percent was lower than previous years, 85 percent in 2018 and 81 percent the year before. Zipp said that without the pandemic and resulting exemptions, he would have expected the district’s graduation to improve, although it wouldn’t have jumped as far.”

Zipp described his high school as transient, meaning it’s common for students to move in and out of the district. That can affect student achievement.

Niagara Falls holds steady

Laurrie said his district in Niagara Falls is transient as well, which is a reason for the below-average graduation rate. He also noted an increasing number of students are opting to join the workforce, which can interfere with coursework.

The four-year graduation rate at Niagara Falls typically falls between 60 and 70 percent.

“Both numbers are not acceptable to me … and we’re working on that,” Laurrie said.


Regents exemptions by school district

District County Graduates % receiving exemption
Buffalo Erie 1,889 22
Newfane Niagara 135 21
Cheektowaga Central Erie 167 20
Niagara Falls Niagara 352 15
Tonawanda City Erie 124 15
Cleveland Hill Erie 86 14
Sherman Chautauqua 29 14
Lockport Niagara 317 13
North Collins Erie 45 11
Brocton Chautauqua 36 11
Jamestown Chautauqua 287 11
Falconer Chautauqua 82 9
West Seneca Erie 478 8
Lackawanna Erie 133 8
Depew Erie 124 8
Niagara-Wheatfield Niagara 300 8
Kenmore-Tonawanda Erie 517 8
Pine Valley (South Dayton) Chautauqua 27 7
Barker Niagara 55 7
Fredonia Chautauqua 114 7
Orchard Park Erie 400 7
Wilson Niagara 90 7
Cheektowaga-Sloan Erie 96 6
Eden Erie 102 6
Panama Chautauqua 34 6
Silver Creek Chautauqua 92 5
Frewsburg Chautauqua 59 5
Royalton-Hartland Niagara 99 5
Holland Erie 80 5
Amherst Central Erie 204 5
Westfield Chautauqua 41 5
Starpoint Niagara 186 5
Forestville Chautauqua 45 4
Cheektowaga-Maryvale Erie 161 4
Williamsville Erie 807 4
North Tonawanda Niagara 256 4
Lewiston-Porter Niagara 165 4
Evans-Brant (Lake Shore) Erie 200 4
East Aurora Erie 151 4
Hamburg Erie 253 4
Dunkirk Chautauqua 128 4
Grand Island Erie 227 4
Lancaster Erie 471 3
Southwestern at Jamestown Chautauqua 97 3
Sweet Home Erie 270 3
Clarence Erie 361 2
Iroquois Erie 167 2
Cassadaga Valley Chautauqua 64 2
Chautauqua Lake Chautauqua 66 2
Springville-Griffith Institute Erie 152 1
Akron Erie 113 1
Alden Erie 129 1
Frontier Erie 313 0
Bemus Point Chautauqua 49 0
Clymer Chautauqua 28 0
Source: State Education Department.

The district maintained its 64 percent graduation rate last school year thanks to the exemptions, he said.

“I think that using that course credit and allowing that local decision was the right avenue at that time,” Laurrie said.

Like at Buffalo, a disproportionate number of minority students received exemptions at Niagara Falls. 

Minority students received 83 percent of the exemptions while making up 54 percent of the graduating class. The same disparity was seen among economically disadvantaged students who made up 40 percent of the graduating class and received 83 percent of the exemptions.

Unlike Buffalo, the district didn’t change its grading policy after the state’s exemption policy was announced a year ago.

“We relied on the professionalism of the teacher and the fidelity of the grades that they gave,” said Laurrie. “I don’t get involved with grading … that’s something that we leave to the teachers’ discretion.”

The district recently changed the grade students can begin taking one required Regents exams.  Students previously took the living environment exam in ninth grade. Now students can take it in eighth grade.

Few exemptions in Williamsville

Only 35 students out of Williamsville’s graduating class of 807 utilized exemptions and their graduation rate remained unchanged. 

Most Williamsville students begin taking some of the required Regents exams in middle school. Completing Regents exams prior to their senior year is built in students’ schedules, said Balen, the assistant superintendent.

“In our district, and many others I’d say, they’ve already bypassed the Regents by their senior year,” she said. “That would probably be in my mind the thing that sets us apart.”

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Buffalo Business First named Williamsville the No. 1 ranked school district in Western New York in 2020. One reason: student success on Regents exams.

“More than two-thirds of Williamsville’s 2019 graduates (68.8 percent) earned Regents diplomas with advanced designations, which are presented to students who pass at least eight Regents and Common Core exams,” Business First reported.

The state 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.