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Regents endorse policy shift to help special-ed students get diploma

Parents from Long Island applaud during a state

Parents from Long Island applaud during a state Board of Regents meeting in Albany on Monday, Dec. 11, 2017. Credit: Tim Roske

The state’s policymaking Board of Regents voted unanimously Monday to allow special-education students who struggle with academic exams to earn high school diplomas through an alternative route, one that relies instead on occupational assessments.

Such students, in order to get a diploma, would no longer need to earn minimum scores on state Regents exams in English and math. Until now, those requirements have applied to some degree to all students, under a state policy initiated more than 20 years ago.

The new plan, crafted by Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, was adopted on an “emergency” basis, so it will apply to teens due to graduate as soon as January.

Monday’s vote by a Regents committee of 16 virtually assures formal passage of the controversial rules change by the entire 17-member board on Tuesday.

Dozens of Long Island parents attending the Regents meeting in Albany on Monday applauded the decision, with many dabbing their eyes. A parents’ Facebook network known as Multiple Pathways to a Diploma for All has lobbied for the measure for months, on grounds that their children’s futures depend on it.

“It’s going to be a very merry Christmas at my house,” said Jessica Corbett of Plainview, whose 15-year-old daughter could potentially obtain a diploma through the alternative route.

Current state law provides two types of high school diplomas: Regents diplomas for all students who score at least 65 on four state exams; and local diplomas for students who score at least 65 on two exams, while also meeting certain other testing requirements.

Special-education students have the additional option of obtaining local diplomas by scoring at least 55 on Regents exams in English and math, or negotiating a maze of scoring appeals and waivers.

Students also can obtain another type of graduation certificate, the Career Development and Occupational Studies Commencement Credential, or CDOS, earned either by completing 216 hours of occupational coursework or passing one of four national work-readiness assessments.

But many parents and students in that group complain that employers don’t recognize the CDOS certificate as valid evidence of high school completion, because the credential does not include the word “diploma.”

Under the new plan, such students could earn local diplomas, so long as they met the CDOS requirements and the superintendent of their district determined that they were proficient in English, math and other academic subjects.

The plan also provides an extra cushion for those special-education students due to graduate in the 2017-18 or 2018-19 school years who may not have had time to satisfy all CDOS rules. Those students also could obtain local diplomas, if their principals determined that they had the skills necessary for entry-level employment.

The rules change could affect substantial numbers of students.

In 2016, the latest year for which data are available, more than 15,000 students with disabilities statewide, including 1,400 in Nassau and Suffolk counties, failed to earn diplomas and graduate after four years of high school. Most of these students either dropped out or remained in school beyond the usual time allotted.

The new plan has strong backing from Betty Rosa of the Bronx, chancellor of the Regents board, as well as Roger Tilles of Great Neck, who represents Long Island on the board, and state Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach).

The rules change is the latest in a series of steps taken by the Regents in recent years in an effort to make school administrators, teachers and parents more comfortable with the state’s Common Core academic standards, as well as exams based on those standards. Protests over tougher state standards and assessments have resulted in four consecutive years of massive test boycotts on the Island and across the state.

Robert Dillon, superintendent of Nassau BOCES, which provides regional special-education classes, said Monday’s action should help some students gain civil service jobs, which are unavailable to those without high school diplomas.

“To have that option is productive for young adults,” Dillon said. “And for parents, I think this will give them some peace of mind.”

Some educational analysts, however, have worried the rule change might encourage schools to revive the use of separate academic “tracks” for students seeking Regents and local diplomas. Eliminating such tracks was a prime motivation for an announcement by state officials in 1995 that they intended to hold all students to the same academic “gold standard” of passing Regents exams.

Other skeptics objected to the speed with which the emergency measure was passed, with virtually no advance notice of the details.

“The Regents shouldn’t make significant policy changes with an 11th hour and 59th minute addition to the agenda,” said Stephen Sigmund, who leads High Achievement New York, a nonprofit advocacy group supported by many business leaders. “The last rule change to allow students with disabilities more flexibility towards a local diploma was completed only a year ago. That change should be given more time.”

Highlights of new plan

Under the plan expected to be approved by the full Regents board on Tuesday, special-education students will now be able to obtain a high school diploma without having to pass a state Regents exam by meeting these criteria:

  • Complete 216 hours of occupational coursework or pass one of four national work-readiness assessments.
  • Be proficient in academics subjects, a determination to be made by the local school superintendent.

Now, such students receive a certificate when they graduate, but it is not recognized by some employers because it does not include the word “diploma.”

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