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Tisch: Student's test woes show need for more diploma paths

A student stuck without a diploma after 11 unsuccessful attempts to pass a test is the “poster child” for a need to create new ways to graduate, a top state education official said this week.

Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch was asked Monday about a recent GothamSchools story on students who have failed to meet the state’s new higher graduation standards, which went into effect last year. She said such students prove the need for diploma options that allow students to substitute an alternative assessment for one of the five required Regents tests.

“Should that student be denied a high-school diploma? I don’t think so,” Tisch said about Tiffany, a would-be nurse who has yet to pass her global history and geography Regents exam more than a year after she had hoped to graduate. Tiffany, who still takes Regents-prep classes at Francis Lewis High School in Queens nearly 18 months after her senior year there, asked that her last name be withheld so that potential employers and others would not learn of her graduation struggles.

“She’s my poster child for why we need multiple pathways [to graduation],” said Tisch, adding that she would like Tiffany to attend a Regents meeting next month where the board will consider proposals for more routes to a diploma.

The state last year began to require students to students to pass every exit exam with a 65 or higher (out of 100) to earn a diploma. The so-called local diploma, which allows scores of 55 or higher on some tests, was restricted to students with disabilities or ones who successfully appeal their scores.

The rule change was intended to ensure that graduates are prepared for college. But in practice, a few missed points on a single Regents exam has stranded some students without diplomas, sidetracking their plans for college or work and footing taxpayers with the bill for test-prep classes.

“There’s a lot of people in my situation that just let it go and then drop out,” said Jessica Fuentes, another Francis Lewis student who missed the higher mark on a few exit exams last year and so now is working three jobs while studying for a GED. “And then when that happens, they become single parents and have no career.”

Along with the higher graduation standards, which were phased in over several years, the state has also considered creating new diploma routes for students in special vocational, math and science and arts programs. Students would still take the state English, math and science exams – as federal law requires – but they would skip the global history test in lieu of an assessment tied to their program.

Abja Midha, coordinator of an advocacy group called Coalition for Multiple Pathways to a Diploma, said that such programs must be available to a wide range of students – including those with special needs – and should include assessments other than standardized tests.

The Board of Regents, which sets graduation requirements, has yet to approve these alternative diploma options – though Tisch said that board members have “enormous interest” in them.

(The board is also considering a proposal to split up the global history and geography course – whose Regents test is failed the most – and creating a separate exam for each course.)

Tisch said that the board will take up the additional-diploma-routes issue in December and invited Tiffany to attend and tell her story.

Tiffany said she would be willing to share her story at the meeting, even though it is unlikely she could take advantage of any new diploma paths. But she said she wished the state had established other graduation options before they raised the minimum exit-exam scores.

“Some people are really bad test takers,” she said. “It would have made our lives much easier.”

Geoff Decker contributed reporting.

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