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.

Graduation Season: A Time for Celebration

by Regina Skyer

It’s graduation season—a time to celebrate the incredible accomplishments of special education students who work so hard to overcome so many challenges in the classroom every year. 

In the spring, I make a point of trying to attend at least one graduation ceremony. It’s a good reminder of why the fight we show up for each day matters so much. 

This week, I journeyed deep into the heart of Brooklyn’s Boro Park to attend a high school graduation for Gan Yisroel Yeshiva’s special education program. The eight lovely young women I was there to witness graduate all have Down syndrome or another significant developmental disability. 

Gan Yisroel does an incredible job at integrating special education students into the social fabric of the larger school. While the girls in the special education program learn in a self-contained class, they are fully integrated into daily life and activities with their typically developing peers. When they danced with their friends this was obvious.  

As part of their graduation ceremony, each girl gave a speech. All of them expressed their gratitude to their teachers, therapists, parents, and to the founders of the school – Rabbi and Mrs. Ginsburg. Their words were eloquent, heartfelt, and there was not a dry eye in the auditorium during the standing ovation they received, marching down their aisle with their yellow corsages and certificates. This program is a shining example of what good special education is about – maximizing each child’s potential, teaching them to self-advocate, heightening their self-esteem, and preparing them to be functioning members of their community and society.  

Whether your child is stepping up from preschool or kindergarten, elementary or middle school, graduating high school, or simply closing out another year making their own kind of music from a cacophony of setbacks, comebacks, and triumphs—congratulations!