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Even as area suburban districts posted moderate gains in their graduation rates, state and local education officials challenged schools across New York to push students to perform at higher levels.

Statewide, the percentage of students graduating increased from 76.7 percent to 77.8 percent between 2012 and 2013. Those figures include students who finished in August after completing summer school.

Improvements were also seen by two-thirds of high schools in Erie and Niagara counties. About 81.1 percent of students in the two counties graduated, up from 79.1 percent in 2012.

Yet state officials point out those numbers reflect the percentage of students meeting the bare minimum high school requirements – including a score of 65 or higher on five Regents exams – and implored districts to raise the bar to adequately prepare graduates for college and the workforce.

“One in four students still aren’t graduating after four years,” State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. said in news release. “And far too many students, even if they graduate from high school, still haven’t completed the advanced and rigorous coursework to be ready for college and the workplace.”

The state gauges that by looking both at students who pass three additional Regents exams and earn an advanced Regents diploma, as well as students who score higher on the tests.

Across New York, the percentage of students earning the advanced Regents diploma has remained relatively stagnant at about 30 percent over the last five years. In Erie and Niagara counties, just 36 percent of students earned the more rigorous diploma.

New York already has some of the toughest graduation standards in the country, with students required to pass five Regents exams to earn their diploma. The state’s push to get more students earning the advanced diploma reflects the rising standards and changing goals that have become hallmarks of the school system as educators try to better prepare students for the 21st century workforce.

“Looking into the future, I don’t think a stagnant goal will be sufficient,” said Donald A. Ogilvie, retiring superintendent of Erie 1 Board of Cooperative Educational Services. “Not to take credit from where credit is due at this point, but everyone needs to realize the goal shifts upward.”

To be sure, in about half of the area’s school districts, more students earn an advanced Regents diploma than the standard one. In Williamsville, for example, where about 94 percent of students graduated, 65 percent received the advanced designation compared with 27 percent who earned the standard one.

In other districts, however, the gap is reversed. In Lackawanna, for example, just 7 percent of students earned the advanced diploma, compared with 69 percent who earned the standard one.

And, state officials argue, those gaps are most glaring among different racial groups, underscoring a persistent achievement disparity. Statewide, just 9 percent of black students who graduated earned the advanced Regents diploma, compared with 43 percent of white students who graduated.

White students and Asian students are the only racial subgroups in which more graduates earn the advanced Regents diploma than the standard one.

Some area schools are already implementing programs educators hope will level the playing field.

The Cheektowaga Central School District opened an alternative high school that targets students who struggle academically. The program – with 28 students – focuses on basics such as attendance, communication with parents and getting students remedial assistance.

Enrolling students who face more challenges in a separate school has also resulted in improvements at the district’s other high school. At Cheektowaga High School, for example, the percentage of students graduating increased from 85.1 percent to 92.2 percent.

“You need to put a lot of effort into some of the very basic things like getting kids to school before you’ll see those other improvements,” said Cheektowaga Superintendent Dennis Kane.

Lackawanna High School saw its graduation rate increase from 65.8 percent to 82.9 percent, gains that Superintendent Anne G. Spadone attributes to more time spent in reading classes and science labs, as well as foundational classes that allow students to master basic skills in a subject before moving on to more difficult material.

The district is also introducing more honors and advanced placement classes to try to push higher-performing students to reach their full potential. Lackawanna was also one of 16 districts in the state selected to open a career-focused school this coming fall. The school, a partnership with Trocaire College and Catholic Health System, will allow students to earn an associate’s degree in a medical field.

Spadone said she hopes that over time, these opportunities will lead to more students earning the advanced Regents diploma.

“Even though we’re facing the same budgetary issues as everyone else,” she said, “we’re trying to offer courses that are engaging to kids.”

email: tlankes@buffnews.com and djgee@buffnews.com