New York State's more demanding requirements for high school graduation will leave a good many students behind this week as high school seniors struggle to pass a fifth Regents exam to earn a diploma before summer's end.
Until this year, students could earn a "local diploma" -- an option that was popular among students struggling with academic subjects and those with no plans to enter college; in 2011, about 9 percent of Hudson Valley students received such a diploma.
Now all students except those with disabilities must earn the more rigorous Regents diploma. That means passing five Regents exams with a score of 65 or better, unlike previously, when a student could score lower than 65 and still graduate. The change has educators worried that too many students will fail to get diplomas. Anxious educators are asking the state to come up with more options that will enable students to get diplomas and move on with their lives.
"If you set requirements at a level that is unreachable for some students, they may simply give up," said Robert Lowry Jr., deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. "That's not ideal, either, so I think people are kind of grasping to come up with some alternative."
Students will take tests Thursday and Friday -- their last chance to get a diploma before the next school year -- and will find out next week whether they passed. To graduate, they now need to pass Regents tests in English, math, global studies, U.S. history and science.
The shift to the emphasis on exams was engineered by the state Department of Education and is intended to make a high school diploma more "meaningful," state officials have said. The State Board of Regents gave school districts several years to phase in the tougher requirements.
Many educators are concerned that the one-size-fits-all approach fails to recognize the individual strengths and challenges of students from diverse backgrounds. Some want to open an easier path to graduation for students studying engineering, nursing or other career-oriented programs in high school.
The Board of Regents is discussing whether it should offer exams that reflect attainment in technical or career-oriented areas. Policy leaders haven't yet decided on any new options.
"We need to do something about the people who are going to be shut out because we closed the local diploma, but we don't have answers yet," said Board of Regents member Harry Phillips III, who represents Hudson Valley counties.
Critics: Urban districts hardest hit by new standards
On Tuesday, Middletown Superintendent Ken Eastwood went so far as to call the graduation requirements "elitist." Eastwood leads a school district with a significant population of immigrant students and students living below the poverty line.
Eastwood spent Tuesday morning encouraging a student who needs to pass additional Regents exams or face not graduating. He explained that the student intends to get a truck driving certification and was reluctant to invest time in a test that wasn't required for his goal.
"The focus is much more narrow now, and it's very elitist. That focus forgets about the 75 percent of the population that has different abilities and different goals," Eastwood said.
"The first years (of new standards) are going to be a struggle for our students," said Eastwood, "But as we develop the instructional and learning skills, we'll get those kids to that point."
The Middletown School District's graduation rate fell by about 3 percent in June 2012, from 75.2 percent in June 2011, according to Eastwood. Statewide data on graduation won't be released until the spring of 2013, but educators expect that the data will show slight declines attributable to the new graduation requirements, especially in urban and rural poor school districts.
School districts have adapted to the new requirements, to a degree.
In Yonkers, where the June graduation rate fell by less than 1 percent this year -- to about 65.5 percent -- the district has started a program that encourages eighth-graders to take two Regents exams. Superintendent Bernard Pierorazio said that offering tests early allows students to notch two passing scores before they enter high school and to then narrow their focus to three other subjects.
One big challenge will be achieving the new standards in an environment in which school districts are cutting programs, said Jim Langlois, superintendent at Putnam Northern Westchester BOCES.
"The real question is: What do you do about it at a time when you're drastically cutting the amount of money that's available to schools?" Langlois said. "It's a question that society needs to look at: If we want to hold kids to high standards, are we willing to make the investments that are needed?"
Options for disabled and special ed students
The concerns reach beyond students in urban districts. According to Lowry, school superintendents are equally anxious about diploma flexibility for students with disabilities.
This year, the Regents are eliminating two graduation options once available to special education students: the Individual Education Plan diploma and Regents Competency Tests.
JoAnn Doherty, co-director of special education for White Plains Public Schools, said her colleagues are concerned about students whose disabilities just barely prevent them from passing all five exams.
"I'm not talking about people who don't try. I'm talking about people whose disabilities disadvantage them in one area," Doherty said.
The new standards allow students with disabilities to earn a local diploma by scoring above a 55 on five Regents exams. Doherty said most students can master four exams, but often struggle in a fifth.
"We work very hard to differentiate curriculum; we have to work equally hard to differentiate diploma options by making them meaningful without having low expectations," Doherty said.
The Board of Regents is maneuvering toward greater flexibility in regard to the special ed students as well. But no solution has been finalized and educators worry some students will fall through the cracks while awaiting a decision.
"I can tell you that there is a concern," Board of Regents member Roger Tilles said. "But we will generally make sure that they're not going to lower the graduation rates significantly. I don't know how we're going to do it, but we will."
Graduation requirements will be on the board's agenda in September, Phillips said.