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Regents board discusses more ways for students to get diplomas

Donald Ahlers, 19, of East Islip takes part

Donald Ahlers, 19, of East Islip takes part in a rally for high school students with special needs in the Lawrence High School library in Cedarhurst on Sunday, Jan. 10, 2016. Credit: Steven Sunshine

Thousands of high school students failing state Regents exams required for diplomas would be offered additional opportunities to graduate in the form of lower cutoff scores on exams and alternative assessments under a new plan debated Monday by the state’s Board of Regents.

Many parents of special education students on Long Island have recently demanded such changes, contending that Albany’s efforts over the past several years to raise academic standards threatened their children’s ability to graduate. The state in 2011 phased out Regents Competency Tests, which were far less difficult than Regents exams and administered to many students with disabilities.

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, who proposed the latest changes, insisted that diploma standards would remain rigorous. However, several Regents board members voiced reservations, especially on the issue of alternative assessments that have not yet been described in detail.

Elia also announced Monday that the statewide graduation rate rose to 78.1 percent in 2015 — up 1.7 percentage points from 2014.

Nonetheless, graduation rates remained relatively low for students in special education, as well as for those who were poor or spoke limited English.

On the Island, for example, 68.4 percent of students with disabilities graduated on time last spring after completing four years of high school. That was in contrast to 89.3 percent of all other students who graduated on schedule in Nassau and Suffolk counties.

“The good news is that more students, particularly those in urban districts, are graduating from high school,” Elia said in a prepared statement. “But we know the graduation rate could be even higher if students were given the option to meet our standards in a different way.”

Under current regulations, students generally must score 65 or higher on state exams in English, algebra and other core subjects in order to graduate with Regents diplomas. Students scoring between 62 and 64 can appeal such grades to local school authorities, so long as appeals are limited to two courses.

A new proposal, submitted to Regents on Monday, would lower the threshold for appeals to scores of 60. Elia and the Regents chancellor, Merryl Tisch, said they expected that plan to be approved within two or three months.

The State Education Department estimates the change would allow an additional 4,000 students to graduate each year.

A regulation adopted earlier by the Regents already allows special education students to appeal exam scores as low as 52. Students winning those appeals can earn local diplomas, which are a level below state-endorsed Regents diplomas.

Another proposal outlined Monday would allow students failing Regents exams to complete “project-based assessments” as alternatives. Such assessments might include history research papers or science lab experiments requiring about seven hours’ work by students, spread over a number of days.

Elia and Tisch said that plan probably would require more than a year to put in place, due to its complexity.

One veteran Regent, Charles Bendit, a Manhattan real estate investor, cautioned that allowing school districts to design alternative assessments entailed some risk.

“Unless it has some rigor, we’re going to have all students opting for an alternative,” Bendit said.

In addition to Regents and local diplomas, the state formerly allowed districts to issue IEP diplomas to students with disabilities who completed individualized education plans.

The state eliminated IEP diplomas starting in the 2013-14 school year on grounds that such credentials did not represent completion of academic work normally associated with the word “diploma.”

The Regents, as a substitute, adopted the use of certificates called Career Development and Occupational Studies Credentials. The rationale was that such certificates more accurately described the academic and occupational training that recipients had completed.

Many parents complained, however, that the credentials were of little use to graduates, because they were not recognized by colleges, the military or many civilian employers.

“It’s egregiously unfair,” said Bonnie Buckley, an East Islip parent and former president of that district’s PTA.

On Sunday, parents and other advocates held a rally in Cedarhurst, urging Regents to provide additional pathways to high school graduation, including expanded options for students with special needs. One rally leader, Assemb. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach) is a candidate for a newly vacated State Senate seat.

“I hope that we will be able to respond to the heartfelt concerns of students and parents,” said another leader, Roger Tilles of Great Neck, who represents the Island on the Regents board.

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