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Long IslandEducation

Diploma debate: LI parents, students press NYS for changes

Nancy Wallmuller, of Oceanside, and her son Zachary,

Nancy Wallmuller, of Oceanside, and her son Zachary, 19, are among those seeking change in the state's high school diploma requirements. Zachary completed high school in 2016 with a work-skills credential rather than a diploma. He says that has impeded his ability to get a job. Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

New York State plans to rethink high school diploma requirements for public school students as a growing body of Long Island students and parents protest that more rigorous academic standards have put many teenagers at a disadvantage, toughening the odds against graduation.

The movement is led by a regional Facebook network of families in Nassau and Suffolk counties. Dozens of activists descended on a state Board of Regents meeting last month in Albany to demand regulatory relief.

Framing the debate is a foundational basis of state education policy: ensuring that students are college- and career-ready upon graduation. This goal has gone hand-in-hand with greater academic expectations, strengthened curricula and more challenging exams — with dramatic drops in state test scores as one consequence.

The diploma issue is significant for a broad group of students and their families, experts noted. Thousands of students each year do not graduate in four years, in large part because they do not complete coursework based on the Common Core academic standards or pass the associated state exams.

“What happens to the kids who can’t get a Regents diploma?” said Nancy Wallmuller of Oceanside, who is active in the parent network and has a son who completed high school in 2016 with a work-skills credential but not a diploma. “You apply for a job as a baggage handler at the airport, and they say you need a high school diploma.”

Regents Chancellor Betty A. Rosa and Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, who reports to the board, have pledged to tackle diploma issues over the next 10 months.

With schools in Long Island’s 124 districts reopening over the next two weeks, many high school students and their families said they are running out of time.

Without diplomas, teenagers said, they ultimately would leave school ineligible for federal college aid, military service and a wide range of entry-level civilian jobs, including custodians’ posts in the very buildings in which they now attend classes.

In New York State, most students earn state-endorsed Regents diplomas by passing courses taught at a college-prep level along with at least four Regents exams with scores of 65 or better. Students also can earn district-endorsed local diplomas — which carry lower requirements — by passing at least three Regents exams with 65 or better while also meeting certain other test standards.

Special education students have the additional option of obtaining local diplomas by scoring at least 55 on Regents exams or by negotiating a maze of scoring appeals and waivers stipulated by state regulations.

Four years ago, the Board of Regents tried to deal with the problems faced by students who couldn’t earn either Regents or local diplomas. The board established a new type of graduation certificate, called a Career Development and Occupational Studies Commencement Credential, or CDOS.

One rationale behind the move was that the credential would provide recognition for such students as long as they successfully completed occupational training or passed a set of work-skills tests.

In July, however, Elia and other state authorities acknowledged what many families already have discovered — employers have been unwilling to hire on the basis of credentials not bearing the word “diploma.”

Several affected families interviewed by Newsday dismissed the CDOS document with descriptions such as “worthless” and “a piece of garbage.”

“It crushed my spirit,” said Zachary Wallmuller, 19. “People said they never heard of CDOS.”

Wallmuller explained that since he left school he has been unable to find permanent work, either as a custodian or an auto-body repair worker. He added that he had applied for about 25 jobs so far.

The Wallmullers are active in an Islandwide movement called Multiple Pathways to a Diploma for All. Over the past year and a half, the Facebook group has held a series of public forums and rallies on the Island, some drawing hundreds of parents and educators.

Tammy Robinson, 53, of Medford, and her daughter, Dana, 17, joined the Multiple Pathways movement. Dana Robinson, who begins 12th grade at Patchogue-Medford High School on Sept. 6, is looking forward to a new school schedule that will allow her to spend a half-day in classes and the remaining time getting practical work experience in local shops and other businesses.

“I’ve never done this before, and I want to know what it’s like,” Dana Robinson said.

Tammy Robinson noted that her daughter has struggled with Regents exams in past years and is unlikely to earn a diploma unless the family can find another route — perhaps, enrollment in a private school that doesn’t require such tests.

“Back in my day, you went to school, you passed your classes, you got a diploma,” the mother said. “I didn’t get a Regents, and I have a good job. I worked 27 years with civil service. Unfortunately, that door’s not open to my daughter. It’s just so heartbreaking.”

Times indeed have changed, as the state beefed up academic standards and requirements. Over the past 20 years, Albany has gradually mandated that all students take Regents-level courses and exams, except those with the severest disabilities.

In 2011, the state began phasing out Regents Competency Tests, or RCTs, which were far less difficult than Regents exams and allowed students to earn local diplomas. The state later canceled the distribution of IEP diplomas to special education students who didn’t pass Regents exams but did complete their Individualized Education Programs.

The numbers of high school seniors who each year fall short of the state’s graduation requirements are substantial:

  • In 2016, according to the state’s latest data, nearly 2,600 students in Nassau and Suffolk counties did not graduate on time after spending four years in high school. Those students remained enrolled. Statewide, that number was 25,693 students.
  • An additional 1,000 students on the Island that year dropped out of school altogether, among 13,431 statewide. Both groups of students are part of the cohort that entered high school in the fall of 2012.
  • Overall, more than 11 percent of students in Suffolk County and more than 9 percent in Nassau did not graduate on time or never completed high school at all in 2016. The statewide figure was nearly 20 percent.

“Certainly, it’s not scientific, but I would say there are thousands of students held back each year,” said state Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), who has worked closely with the Multiple Pathways parent group.

Elia, during a meeting with parents and activists in July, appeared to agree that changes in graduation requirements are a major priority.

“Clearly, having these closeouts of opportunities for them is one of our big issues,” the commissioner said.

The Regents have tentatively agreed on a long-range goal of raising statewide graduation rates from about 80 percent to 95 percent. Analysts noted that such improvement is not likely to be realized without significant changes in diploma requirements.

Several new graduation options are under discussion at the state level.

One would allow students statewide to substitute projects such as written research papers for certain Regents exams. The idea is based on the experience of 46 high schools in New York City known as Performance Assessment schools, which offer this alternative.

Any such move probably would require federal permission. The U.S. Education Department can allow selected states to pilot alternative assessments under the Every Student Succeeds Act, a revised federal law signed in December, but has not yet announced when states will be allowed to apply.

Elia herself floated another possible option in July, when she suggested that requirements now used to qualify students for CDOS credentials be used to grant CDOS diplomas instead. The commissioner has provided no details on how this approach might work, however.

To earn CDOS credentials under current rules, students either must complete 216 hours of career and occupational training or pass one of four national work-skills assessments. Few students have taken this route, and questions have arisen over whether work-skills tests are rigorous enough to qualify teens for diplomas.

Chalkbeat, a nonprofit online news organization focused on education, reported in April that such tests often measured fairly basic life skills, such as how to overcome obstacles when throwing a company party.

Roger Tilles of Great Neck, who represents Long Island on the Regents board, has voiced concerns of his own. Tilles said he sympathizes with students facing difficulties in earning diplomas, but worries that creation of a CDOS diploma would cause some high school students to be placed in lower academic “tracks” than those for students prepping for Regents exams.

“You don’t want a district to encourage kids to go into a CDOS when they could be getting a regular Regents diploma,” Tilles said.

State education officials insisted they do not intend to lower standards.

Parents active in the Multiple Pathways movement vowed, meanwhile, to keep pressuring the state for changes in graduation rules.

“I’ll be up at the Regents meeting again on Sept. 11,” said activist Jessica Corbett, 46, of Plainview, the mother of a 10th-grader.

Back to school for 2017-18

School openings. The Jericho district starts classes Tuesday, Herricks on Wednesday, Oyster Bay-East Norwich and Great Neck on Thursday, and Westbury on Friday.

Seventy districts open on Tuesday, Sept. 5. Forty-four districts begin classes on Wednesday, Sept. 6, and five on Thursday, Sept. 7.

Enrollment. Public school enrollment in grades K-12 on Long Island is projected to be 432,406, a 0.7 percent drop from last year, according to demographers at Western Suffolk BOCES. This would continue a gradual decline that began 12 years ago and is expected to continue for at least the next two years.

Academics standards. The Board of Regents is tentatively scheduled to approve final revisions in statewide academic standards at its meeting in Albany on Sept. 11 and 12. The guidelines, formerly known as Common Core, have been renamed Next Generation Learning Standards.

The Regents also are to decide on a state plan for carrying out provisions of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which was signed into law in December.

Graduates and nongraduates

Here are numbers and percentages of students in the Class of 2016, statewide and for Long Island, who either graduated on time with Regents diplomas or local diplomas, received credentials instead, transferred to a GED “equivalency” program, or did not graduate.

Statewide

Total cohort: 208,021 or 100%

Earned diplomas: 165,880 or 79.7%

No diplomas/remained enrolled: 25,693 or 12.4%

No diplomas/dropped out: 13,431 or 6.5%

No diplomas/earned credential instead: 1,543 or 0.7%

No diplomas/transferred to GED “equivalency” diploma program: 1,130 or 0.5%

Long Island

Total cohort: 36,456 or 100%

Earned diplomas: 32,659 or 89.6%

No diplomas/remained enrolled: 2,597 or 7.1%

No diplomas/dropped out: 1,000 or 2.7%

No diplomas/earned credential instead: 127 or 0.3%

No diplomas/transferred to GED “equivalency” diploma program: 57 or 0.2%

Source: State Education Department

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