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NY diploma reforms overlooked some students

Many desks were empty in this classroom at

Many desks were empty in this classroom at Valley Stream Memorial Junior High School as students opted out of taking the state's English Language Arts test Thursday, April 16, 2015. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Betty Pilnik has raised five children who attended the Oceanside public schools. So when something doesn't seem right, she has a lot of context for comparison. The Pilnik family is practically its own focus group.

Two years ago, New York education officials eliminated the Regents Competency Tests, which were given to special education students to earn a local diploma. Now, they must take the same Regents exams as other students. And even though the bar for passing is lower, Pilnik says it's a standard her middle child, Brandon, 17, can't meet.

Brandon, who is going into his senior year, was diagnosed at 2 on the autism spectrum, with PDD-NOS -- pervasive development disorder-not otherwise specified. The diagnosis means he has some characteristics of autism, but not all of them. It led to a score of 10 out of 100 on the English Regents exam.

"I think they gave him 10 points for signing his name," his mother said. Requiring special education kids to take these exams, she said, is "unrealistic."

The New York Regents eliminated the Regents Competency Tests because they were not aligned with the Common Core -- a set of standards New York embraced in 2012 so that a high school diploma would signify a meaningful level of education.

Since then, New York has walked back several aspects of education reform -- delaying the time when tests would "count" for students and for teacher evaluations, replacing test developer Pearson Education. The Pilniks' story makes me think New York also needs to alter its new rules about diplomas for special ed students.

Education reform is generally headed in the right direction: higher standards for everyone. But big reform waves can wash over important details, and the diploma for special ed students looks like one of them.

James DeLorenzo, New York's assistant commissioner for special education, said there are still two options for earning a local diploma, which has been the traditional route for students with disabilities. There's a "low pass" option, meaning a student takes five Regents exams with scores no lower than 55. There's also a "compensatory" option: earning at least a 55 on the math and English Regents exams, and a 65 or higher on another Regents exam, which could then compensate for at least a 45 on a fourth exam. This diploma, too, requires five Regents tests.

Another option is that a student with a disability can qualify for one of two "credentials" instead of a diploma. The Skills and Achievement Commencement Credential basically says that a student completed the required time in the classroom. The Career Development and Occupational Studies Commencement Credential would communicate that a student is ready for entry-level employment, has a career plan, and has taken career and technical courses in addition to gaining some hands-on experience. A school counselor would write an employability profile for a student earning this credential.

That sounded like an excellent plan until I spoke with Pilnik about her dreams for Brandon. She'd like to see him enter a trade school, perhaps to become a lab technician, a plumber or an electrician. He could be trained as a court reporter, she says -- that's what she does for a living. He has perfect grammar and perfect pitch and earned top scores for vocal performance two years in a row. Maybe he could teach music.

But those routes would mostly be closed to him without a diploma.

Brandon is one of those kids who has shown up for extra help before and after school, who has studied with a tutor, who has worked harder than his mainstream siblings. It doesn't seem fair to tell him now what he can't achieve in the future.

Anne Michaud is the interactive editor for Newsday Opinion.

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