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Tougher diploma rules leave some students in graduation limbo

If Jessica Fuentes had better luck with timing, she might be in college now.

But because she was a high school senior in 2012, the year the state raised the minimum exam scores required to graduate, she missed the new cutoff score on a few tests, failed to receive a diploma, and withdrew from the college she had planned to attend.

Today, after many unsuccessful attempts to pass the tests, she is juggling three jobs while studying for a high school equivalency certificate.

“I did four years of high school,” said Fuentes, 20. “What a waste of my time.”

Fuentes is one of an untold number of city students ensnared by the state’s efforts to raise graduation standards. Those efforts, meant to ensure that high school graduates are prepared for college, have in some cases stranded students in graduation limbo, where because a single test score is a few points too low, they must set aside plans for work and college to take taxpayer-funded test-prep classes.

Betty Rosa, a member of the state Board of Regents that set the higher standards, said the change was never meant to keep otherwise solid students from graduating due to a few points on a test.

“I think there are arguments for rigor,” Rosa said. “But at the same time, as we move through these issues, we really have to take into account what are the unintended consequences.”

Starting last year, students must pass five state Regents exams with grades of 65 or higher. Previously, students could earn a 55 or higher on some of the tests and still graduate, but with a so-called local diploma. That option now is only available to students with disabilities or ones who successfully appeal their scores.

Fuentes hit the old standard but not the new one on each of the exams. Another student from her senior class at Francis Lewis High School in Queens has taken a single Regents exam 11 times without passing — including every opportunity since missing her graduation last year. Under the old cutoff score, she, too, would have passed the test.

The student, Tiffany, asked that her last name be withheld so that potential employers and others would not be able to discover her struggle to graduate.

She said she has attended afternoon and weekend Regents-prep sessions, studied with a private tutor, taken online courses and watched instructional YouTube videos — all in the hopes of passing the global history and geography exam.

Meanwhile, she has had to pause her plans of attending college and becoming a nurse.

“These poor kids are being held back and their lives are on hold because they can’t get this diploma,” said Cristina Cotignola, a Francis Lewis guidance counselor. “As an educator, I hate this rule.”

Neither the state nor city education department could say how many students were blocked from graduating last year after falling on the wrong side of the new cutoff line.

The city’s four-year graduation rate declined by half a point last year: from 60.9 percent to 60.4 percent — a modest dip, but the first real decrease under Mayor Bloomberg. (The city also toughened how Regents exams are scored and limited makeup work last year for the first time.)

Abja Midha, project director for the nonprofit Advocates for Children, said the full impact of the rule change would not become clear for another year or so, when some students who narrowly missed the score cutoff stop trying to earn their diplomas and turn instead to GED classes or work — a risky route that could limit college choices and future wages.

The group estimates that statewide about 22 percent of each senior class — or some 48,000 students — might not graduate high school for a variety of reasons, from missing class credits to dropping out. A small subset of those students includes ones who met most graduation requirements, but scored too low on one or more Regents exams.

“Those are students who now do not have access to college or other careers,” Midha said.

Students who fail the state tests can retake them as many times as they like. To boost their odds of passing, they can attend city-funded Regents-prep classes until they turn 21.

At Francis Lewis, review sessions leading up to the test are available for the 20 or so students that failed exams last year due to the higher cutoff score. Tiffany, for one, returned last school year for global history tutoring every afternoon and five hours each Saturday morning — but still she couldn’t pass the test.

The global history exam — which covers several millennia of world history taught over two school years — is the most-failed Regents test. The state has considered overhauling the exam so that it would cover less content.

Tiffany’s father, Philip Yeung, argues that it makes little sense for the state to prevent Tiffany, a would-be nurse, from graduating high school on account of a history exam. It also seems unwise for the city to pour resources into her for an extra year or more also on account of a single test, Yeung added.

“I’d rather see them give that time and effort to a student that’s failing, who really needs it,” he said.

Students who come within three points of passing a Regents exam and meet several other criteria, including good attendance and passing grades, can appeal their scores on up to two tests. If a school-based appeal committee signs off, the students receive diplomas.

Neither Fuentes nor Tiffany has earned at least a 62 on the global history exam and so neither can appeal her score.

The Coalition for Multiple Pathways to a Diploma, which includes Advocates for Children, has called on the state to add non-test assessments — such as final projects or portfolios — as graduation options. It also urged the state to expand the number of tests and range of scores subject to appeal, and better publicize that process.

In the meantime, some students remain stuck.

Tiffany still exchanges text messages with her guidance counselor about retaking the Regents exam, but she has lost touch with most of her classmates who earned diplomas and moved on.

Now, after more than a year of fruitless tutoring and retesting, Tiffany has decided to start studying for her GED.

“What else can I do?” she said. “I’ve basically done everything I can, but nothing’s working.”

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