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Diploma rules for students with disabilities raise hope and fear

For months, advocates for students with special needs have been pushing the state to reconsider a safety net meant to help those students graduate.

But when the state’s top education policy-makers sat down in Albany Monday to discuss the issue, they instead floated the idea of making graduation requirements even easier for students who have disabilities.

This year, for the first time, all students in New York State will have to pass five Regents exams with a 65 or higher in order to graduate. In the past, students have had the option of getting a less rigorous “local diploma” with some scores of 55 or higher, with the number of 65’s required inching upward each year.

But the elimination of the local diploma doesn’t extend to students who require special education services: They will still be able to graduate with 55’s on their transcripts, even on all five required Regents exams.

Advocates say that leniency runs the risk of creating a second-class diploma for students with disabilities, similar to the IEP diploma that is being eliminated. Students had to pass exams known as Regents Competency Tests to get the diploma, but earning one did not qualify graduates for college, work, or the military.

Last month, a group of advocates officially asked the state to extend the local diploma option for all students rather than set students with special needs apart.

“By having a diploma that’s a disabilities-only diploma … it’s a stigmatizing act, singling out kids with disabilities,” said Stephen Boese, the executive director of the state’s Learning Disabilities Association. “Down the line one wonders if there will be a diminution of the diploma.”

Advocates have been making that case in letters, meetings, and phone calls to state officials. But yesterday, when State Education Department officials presented an updated graduation requirement proposal to the Board of Regents, who must approve changes, they suggested widening the safety net even more for students with disabilities.

The students would be allowed to score between 45 and 54 on one Regents exam and still graduate, provided that they had at least one other score of 65 or higher to counterbalance it, according to the proposal. To get credits, students would also have had to pass a class in the tested subject and have attended at least 95 percent of sessions.

Some members of the Board of Regents questioned whether students with disabilities, who typically have a lower attendance rate, could reasonably be expected to attend class 95 percent of the time. State officials said excused absences, as when a student is ill, would not count against them.

Overall, State Education Commissioner John King told the Regents, “We’ve gotten positive feedback in our field conversations about the compensatory model.” He said department officials estimated that as many as 20 to 30 percent of students who had relied on the competency exams to earn IEP diplomas would be able to earn a local diploma with the safety net option.

“We’re certainly not trying to lower the standard for disabilities,” said Jim DeLorenzo, SED’s statewide special education coordinator, during the meeting. “There are some disability-related issues with regard to areas where they can achieve very well and areas where they can achieve tremendous challenges and we’re trying to recognize that.”

Officials emphasized that the local diploma will not be exclusively the domain of students with special needs, because general education students who try multiple times to pass exams and come within a few points of a 65 might be permitted to graduate anyway. But doing so will require the student to file a written appeal for an exemption. Students with disabilities would receive the leniencies automatically, according to the proposal discussed on Monday.

The Regents are not slated to vote on the proposals until October, meaning that changes would not take effect for this year’s seniors and also that the public comment period, which is open now, could lead to other changes.

The advocates are planning to register comments arguing that the state is short-sighted by simply tinkering with Regents exam requirements to differentiate among students with wide-ranging needs. They have been pushing for the Regents to consider “multiple pathways” to graduation instead that would allow all students to show proficiency without passing potentially any Regents exams.

“The new safety net is good as far as it goes, but the fact is that there are going to be a lot of students with disabilities who are not going to succeed on any of the standardized tests,” he said.

Students without disabilities also struggle to pass the required exams, and they too would benefit from a more robust rethinking of what it should take to graduate from high school in New York City, said Gisela Alvarez, a project director for Advocates for Children.

Last year, about 8,000 city students graduated with the local diploma option because they scored a 65 or higher on only four of the five required exams. Some fear that number of students could be kept from graduation this year, under the more stringent requirements.

Some changes appear to be in the pipeline. For example, the state is exploring ways to develop Career and Technical Education assessments that could count toward Regents diploma requirements, potentially substituting for the global history exam, which is most frequently failed.

But any new pathways are years away from becoming live options. State education officials said their goal is to present a progress report on the CTE pathways proposal by September, make recommendations by December, and then create action items to be voted on.

Despite the long runway, Alvarez said she is optimistic about the future, even as the state might make missteps along the way.

“This conversation has been going on for a long time, but it’s only been going on in pieces. The state had not taken a look at this in a comprehensive manner,” she said. “It has been a fragmented conversation up until now.”