Opportunity Gaps and Advanced Regents Diplomas

As New York State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia affirmed in a statement earlier this month, “We know the achievement gap exists as a direct result of the opportunities that are available to some students but not others . . . An important part of closing that gap is to foster real change and provide opportunities for all students.”

This is not a new revelation, but the commissioner’s acknowledgment of the significance of the opportunity gap is important, and welcome.

The obvious gap between the educational opportunities available to students in affluent, predominantly white areas and those typically available to students of color and students in poverty is exemplified in the State Education Department’s February 2017 report on four-year graduation rates for students who began 9th grade in 2012. A chart on page 8 of that report shows significant race-based disparities in the attainment of advanced-designation Regents diplomas, a prestigious honor that gives students an advantage in the college-admissions process, especially for those applying to colleges in the State University of New York and City University of New York systems.

According to state education officials, just 10.3% of black students and 13.9% of Latino/a students were awarded an advanced Regents diploma, while 43.7% of their white peers received that special designation.

Advanced Regent Stats

What these statistics do not reveal, however, is that predominantly black and Latino/a public high schools in New York City (and almost certainly elsewhere) are less likely to offer the sequences of courses—in the arts, in languages other than English, and in career and technical education, plus additional science and math courses—that students must take in order to earn an advanced Regents diploma. As former Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch declared in 2014, contextualizing the racial disparities in New York’s graduation rates, “There’s clearly a lack of equity in access in the course offerings necessary for the Advanced Designation.”

Without that additional context, too many New Yorkers, including the young people who were never given a chance to earn that award, are left to reach their own conclusions as to why lower percentages of New York students of color are graduating without the advanced designation. “Additional work is still needed to close achievement gaps,” reads the final slide in the graduation-rate presentation. (What is that “additional work”? The presentation doesn’t say.)

Simply put, a student who is never offered the opportunity to achieve an academic honor will never achieve that honor. If our state policymakers see value in creating opportunities for New York students to excel academically and earn special honors (and the significant privileges that those honors confer), they must also see the value in ensuring that all students have access to those opportunities.

It’s time to demystify and expose the systemic discrimination behind these so-called achievement gaps. To that end, whenever the State Education Department (or any other state or district body) releases data showing disparities in student outcomes, including the attainment of advanced Regents diplomas, it should also be required to release comparable data—presented in equally user-friendly charts, graphs, slides, and summaries—showing the disparities in access to the learning opportunities and resources that students need in order to achieve the related standards. State education officials should also fill the regulatory gaps that, along with longstanding school-funding disparities, allow these discriminatory elements of our education system to fester.

We must demand that our government be explicit in connecting the dots between outcome disparities and opportunity disparities—and in fulfilling its moral and legal obligation to provide the levels of resources and supports required to give all children a chance to meet state standards and achieve at the highest academic levels. (Our recent Ensuring Resource Accountability report, part of our Students’ Constitutional Right to a Sound Basic Education: New York State’s Unfinished Agenda roadmap for elected officials and education-policy leaders, explains what state officials need to do to satisfy these obligations.)