Regents exams

NYS’ Rapidly Evolving High School Graduation Requirements for Special Education Students

New York State’s high school graduation requirements for public school students are rapidly evolving. If you are considering enrolling your child in a public high school, it’s a good idea to acquaint yourself with the myriad ways in which this is all in flux.

A diploma with no Regents exams?

Last month, at a Board of Regents meeting, the State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia raised the possibility of providing a new path to a local diploma for high school students pursuing certification through Career Development and Occupations Studies (CDOS), according to Chalkbeat.

The CDOS credential certifies that a student has “the standards-based knowledge and skills necessary for entry-level employment.” CDOS students take career and technical education (CTE) coursework, complete work-based experience requirements, and meet other standards aimed at workplace readiness. Originally, CDOS was only available to students with IEPs, although that is no longer the case. Prior to 2016 there was no way for a CDOS student to earn a high school diploma, which limited those students’ abilities to gain some kinds of employment, enter the military, or pursue post-secondary education. But in 2016, the state rolled out the “4+CDOS” option, meaning that CDOS credential students who also passed 4 Regents exams or Departmental assessments could earn a diploma too.

Now, Commissioner Elia is reportedly raising the possibility of allowing CDOS students to earn a local diploma without taking any Regents exams at all. This would be a very significant policy change, but critical details about what would be required of students aren’t available at this point. The NYS Education Department press office told Chalkbeat, “Today, the Board of Regents and the Department started a discussion to examine all of New York’s diploma options and graduation requirements. This discussion will continue over the coming months. It is premature to speculate on any changes that could be made as a result of this process.”

Without a formal proposal it’s impossible to evaluate this idea. We will report back to you about the public hearing and public review process once it is underway.

Parents win important victory protecting students who are not ready to graduate

Parents of IEP students recently won an important battle related to the watering down of graduation requirements. Earlier this year, the NYS Department of Education permanently adopted a number of changes that were made provisionally in the fall of 2016 regarding high school graduation requirements for special education students. One of the changes reformed a pathway to graduation called the “superintendent determination option.”

To be eligible for a local diploma by superintendent determination, a student must have minimum scores on the Regents exams of 55 in ELA and in mathematics (or a successful appeal of a score between 52 and 54). But for the other three exams, students can substitute a review of other documentation showing their proficiency in a subject area. In order for a student to be considered for a review, they must have a current IEP and have earned the required course credits for graduation.

Parents contended that school superintendents were gaming the system, saving their districts money by moving young people along before they were truly ready to graduate. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) guarantees a disabled student’s right to receive a free and appropriate education (FAPE) until they graduate or until the end of the school year or summer term in which they turn 21.

Some students who cannot meet the Regents testing requirements undoubtedly benefit from the superintendent determination option. But for others, graduating “on time” instead of spending an additional year (or two) in their school program is not in their best interests.

The rules now require a superintendent to first receive a written request from an eligible student’s parent or guardian before beginning the review process for a local diploma based on superintendent determination. This is good news for special education families throughout New York State—and a testament to the power of parent advocacy to achieve meaningful policy change.

High school students with IEPs are being denied life-changing Career and Technical Education (CTE) opportunities

Students with disabilities have graduation rates that seriously lag behind general education students. In 2015, 83.1% of general education students graduated, but only 49.8% of students with IEPs did. No one has a magic bullet for fixing this, but Advocates for Children’s latest report, Obstacles and Opportunities, reveals that Career and Technical Education (CTE) may boost graduation rates for some of our students.

One of the reasons that students don’t graduate is struggling with the State’s graduation exams, and CTE provides a promising new pathway for graduation. As of 2015, NYS now allows a student who successfully completes a CTE program and earns a passing score on its assessment exam to forgo a fifth Regent exam. This is commonly referred to as the “4+1” option.

CTE may also be beneficial for students with disabilities because many of its programs are compatible with so-called “active teaching strategies” that incorporate movement, repetition, and other strategies or modes of learning that work better for some kids with developmental disabilities and learning disabilities. CTE has a wide range of disciplines (over 400 programs) that appeal to a variety of interests and skills in such fields and trades as culinary arts, automotive repair, web design, computer science and technology, carpentry, and more; so a student with a special interest may be more motivated to succeed in one of these programs.

Finally, CTE students gain hands-on career-building skills and may have access to internships, mentorships, and job shadowing. So, in addition to boosting matriculation rates, “students with disabilities who successfully pursue CTE are more likely to experience improved prospects for employment, earnings, and overall economic success,” according to the report’s findings. 

Unfortunately, because of changes in the overall job market, enrollment in these specialized CTE programs has become much more competitive. Advocates for Children found that students with disabilities were significantly underrepresented in CTE programs. Some of the many reasons for this, they said, include a lack of awareness among IEP teams about CTE opportunities and a parallel lack of awareness and training among CTE program staff about the diverse abilities of students with disabilities and how to accommodate and integrate them.

A frustrating catch-22 for students struggling with the Regents, who might particularly benefit from the 4+1 option, is that Advocates for Children found that many schools “restrict students from participating in CTE if they have not met Regents exam benchmarks.” Students themselves may also decide against enrolling in a CTE program if they are struggling to prepare for the Regents exams. According to the report, “students trying to fulfill these testing requirements while simultaneously pursuing CTE coursework may feel overwhelmed and forced to make decisions that may not be in their best long-term educational or career interests.” And while the opportunity to take advantage of the 4+1 option is compelling, only a few dozen of the over 400 CTE programs are currently approved as 4+1 options throughout New York State.

If you have a child in high school or who is approaching the high school age, it is well worth your time to read Obstacles and Opportunities in full. You can also find out more about CTE programming on the NYC Department of Education’s Career and Technical Education (CTE) webpage