Regents diploma sets bar too low

Graduation at East Meadow High School (June 28, Graduation at East Meadow High School (June 28, 2009) Photo Credit: Frank Koester

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The Board of Regents has agreed to change the way completing high school is recognized for some learning-disabled students. This raises the question: When will we change the way completing high school, at various levels of rigor and achievement, is recognized for all students?

The Regents decided Monday that graduates with severe disabilities will receive an achievement credential rather than the "individualized education plan" diploma they now get. The point is acknowledging the effort of these students while differentiating it from diploma-worthy work, and it makes sense. But this change will affect less than 3 percent of the state's students.

More moderately disabled students who score 55-64 on Regents exams will continue to receive what is called a "local diploma." But we need to differentiate between the achievements of mainstream students, and brilliant ones, mechanical geniuses and vocational talents.

The basic Regents diploma, which certifies students have received scores of 65 or better on five year-end state exams, is about all there is in New York State. The only credentials to show students have done more are the "with honors," "advanced designation" and "advanced designation with honors" Regents diplomas. These generally indicate more exams passed and/or very high scores.

The International Baccalaureate program, an intense curriculum that confers a well-regarded credential, existed in only 50 schools, public and private, and awarded just 675 diplomas in this state in 2009. It's a great program, but only for those who have access, which on Long Island includes students in Rockville Centre, Bay Shore, Commack, Locust Valley, Long Beach, Northport-East Northport and West Islip.

While the "advanced designation with honors" Regents diploma highlights great results, it doesn't define the rigor of the courses taken. Nor, on the other hand, are there diplomas to certify that some students who didn't manage algebra II achieved plenty in vocational or technical classes.

Side effects of such a broad standard are assuring lots of kids graduate, and setting the bar too low. Such standards mean that too many graduates, even those with the ability and desire to go to college, aren't ready. Students finish high school so unprepared that the State University of New York system spends $70 million a year teaching college students material they already should have mastered. Higher graduation standards might help alleviate this problem, but those standards will never be raised for the kids equal to them until we define appropriate, separate criteria for those who can't. We need to have a high school diploma for which the requirements align with college standards, so that receiving it indicates the student is prepared for college. The Regents diploma does not do this.

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Other states have more varied diplomas. Virginia, a leader in this area, offers five graduation certifications that indicate different curricula pursued, and different paths after commencement. New York should move in that direction, assuring that every student can access an education, certification and future that fit their dreams, rather than a one-size-fits-most diploma, the requirements of which are too difficult for some, or mismatched to their talents, and too easy for others.

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