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Principals wonder how last-minute graduation rule changes will affect their students

As students across New York began taking mandatory Regents exams Tuesday, some of their principals were wondering whether their scores would matter at all.

That’s because the state’s Board of Regents passed a new set of rules this week that eliminate the need to earn passing scores for an estimated 2,200 students with disabilities. Those students will be able to earn a less-rigorous “local” diploma by passing just two Regents exams in math and English, but will not be required to pass tests in other subjects.

The decision left some educators wondering how the new rules, which take effect this month, would affect students with disabilities who are just weeks short of graduation, and what alternate measures would be used in place of the usual Regents exams.

“I’m sitting on the sidelines waiting to see what [the requirements] will look like,” said Abraham Lincoln High School Principal Ari Hoogenboom. “I have no sense at all.”

Under the new rules, it will be up to local superintendents to determine whether students who did not pass their additional Regents exams have demonstrated proficiency in those subjects and should graduate. They will be expected to review students’ final grades and coursework completed throughout the year, according to the rules.

Some principals saw the changes as positive. But most said they still don’t understand how they will work — or how the new rules will interact with the state’s existing appeals process for students with disabilities who are on the cusp of passing the tests.

For a student who doesn’t pass five Regents exams, “Do we appeal the score or do we demonstrate mastery to the superintendent?” Hoogenboom asked. “We’ll have to go down a list of all our students who were unable to graduate and say, This one is eligible for this program, and another student is eligible for another program, this other one is eligible for everything. What do we do?”

The principals didn’t anticipate a flood of students graduating who otherwise wouldn’t have. Hudson High School for Learning Technologies principal Nancy Amling said she thought only one or two of her students would be affected.

Still, the principals wondered if they would have to scramble to pull together examples of student work to show superintendents in the next few weeks.

“Are we supposed to create portfolios?” asked one transfer high school principal, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “I don’t know how they would do that by the end of this year.”

City officials did not have specific answers Tuesday about how they would help principals and superintendents implement the new policy, or how many students they anticipated would be affected this year. An education department spokeswoman said the city is waiting for guidance from the state, and will work closely with superintendents and principals.

The changes are the latest battleground in a debate over how to balance rigorous graduation requirements against the reality that some students with disabilities struggle to meet them.

Several advocates for students with disabilities said easing graduation standards could help students earn a diploma and enable them to apply for a vocational program, get a job, or join the military. Those options were not available under a previous credential New York offered for students with disabilities that has since been eliminated.

“We have some of the most onerous exit exam requirements in the country,” said Abja Midha, a project director at Advocates for Children who runs the organization’s statewide coalition that advocates for students to have more options to earn a diploma. “We’re hoping this is the beginning of thoughtful changes to exit exam requirements more broadly.”

Indeed, the changes are part of a wider effort by policymakers over the past two years to ease graduation requirements.

But others are worried the new rules will lower the quality of the education a student with disabilities would receive.

“Teachers are going to try to push students there, and now we’ve lowered the bar,” said Mark Anderson, a special education teacher at a Bronx middle school.

Todd Kaminsky, a state senator who pushed for the new graduation requirements, said the change isn’t about watering down standards, but paving the way for more appropriate, “project-based” measures for students who struggle to meet graduation requirements.

“There are ways to show potential and demonstrate [proficiency] without taking a test,” he said.

“Is there an implementation concern? Yes,” he added. “But I’m confident it’ll be carried out.”