New York students with disabilities can now graduate high school without passing most Regents exams. The dramatic move by New York’s education policymakers could increase demand for the state’s less-rigorous “local” diploma and reignite a debate about academic requirements for those students.
Under new rules approved Monday, students with disabilities will be able to earn a local diploma by passing the math and English Regents exams and proving to superintendents they have mastered course material in other subjects. Previously, those students had to pass another two or three exams with a lower score.
The changes, which will go into effect this month, are part of a broader effort by New York policymakers over the last two years to help more students reach graduation. Eliminating the need for some students to pass the exit exams is the most noteworthy departure from the state’s traditional requirements yet — and could have a big impact, given that nearly one in five New York City students has a disability. Almost half of graduates with disabilities already opted for the local diploma last year.
“We know that all students are capable of achieving this accomplishment,” State Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said Monday. “It’s on us to offer them multiple pathways to do so, pathways that are rigorous.”
State policymakers estimate that the new measure, which was adopted as an emergency regulation but faces a formal vote Tuesday, could help about 2,200 more students graduate this year. It’s also likely to add a dose of confusion into this round of Regents testing — which also starts Tuesday — and schools’ last-minute efforts to certify students for graduation.
Policymakers have been searching for new graduation pathways since 2012, when the state raised the passing Regents exam score to 65, instead of the previously required 55.
Students with disabilities have been at the center of this debate. Only 40 percent of the city’s students graduate high school in four years, and some educators and advocates have worried that students with disabilities were getting snared by the new standards.
But some observers are already worried that the changes, which apply only to students with Individualized Education Programs, could have a negative effect by reducing expectations for students with disabilities.
“This does not sound like a step in the right direction to me,” said Mark Anderson, a special education teacher at Jonas Bronck Academy in a comment on a previous story about the change. “What sort of expectations are we conveying for success in academics if we make it ‘easier’ for some?”
Regents acknowledged that the move might draw criticism for lowering standards, but said the benefits to students and families outweighed that concern.
Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa pointed out that students will still be required to take and pass Regents-level classes, and they will also have to attempt the exams. Keeping students in a rigorous classroom environment is “critical,” she said.
Under the new regulation, superintendents will review a student’s final course grade and also schoolwork completed throughout the year to judge whether he or she mastered the material.
New York has historically struggled to avoid tracking students into less rigorous diploma options. The state eliminated an IEP diploma, an earlier option for students with disabilities that was largely meaningless, since it was not accepted by colleges, the military, or employers as a high school credential.
The state also eliminated the option for most students without disabilities to earn a local diploma in recent years, focusing on getting more students to earn a Regents diploma that requires passing multiple exit exams with a score of 65.
The move away from local diplomas was important for ensuring all students get the best educational experience, said Regent Lester Young, who supported the changes on Monday. When that diploma was available, students of color were being disproportionately steered toward that less-rigorous option, he said.
“Whenever there have been local diploma options, the least of us get pushed in,” he said.
Others think the measure’s requirements are still too stringent for students with disabilities. Some took particular issue with the requirement that students would still have to pass the English Regents exam.
“As an ELA instructor of learning disabled high school students … I am outraged,” said John Connolly, a commenter on a previous story about the policy change. “Of all exams, how can the Regents believe that the Common Core ELA should remain?”