State to Propose New Graduation Requirements for Students with Disabilities

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After three postponed attempts, New York State is on track to eliminate a set of less demanding exams that thousands of students with disabilities have used to earn diplomas. But where the state is closing a door, it is opening another one -- or several.

In a proposal that the Board of Regents will discuss at its meeting next week, the State Education Department has suggested creating a new safety net for students with disabilities, many of whom could fail to graduate from high school once they must take the more difficult exams.

Under this plan, which would first affect students who entered ninth grade in 2011, students could earn diplomas one of three ways. They could score between a 55-64 on five Regents exams -- an option available to them now; they could use a high score on one exam to compensate for a low one on another; or they could swap and take an extra math or science Regents in place of the Global History exam, which is notoriously difficult.

If students succeed using any one of these three routes, they would be granted a local diploma, a lesser degree that the state has eliminated for its general education students. Beginning with this year's graduates, general education students will have to score at least a 65 on five Regents exams -- English, math, science, global history and United States history -- to receive a Regents diploma, the tougher certificate to earn.

"By moving to require all students to take Regents exams, the board committed many years to increased rigor in high school," said State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. "But we want to make sure that we accommodate students' particular disabilities."

Current sophomores, juniors, and seniors in high school will still be able to take the Regents Competency Tests, a set of exams that students with disabilities can take once they have failed the regular Regents exams. They have to pass six of the alternative tests to earn a local diploma.

Some school districts did away with the R.C.T.'s years ago, and state officials have been talking about phasing them out since the 1990s, when minimum skills tests went out of fashion across the country.

In 2010, the most recent year for which graduation data is available, more than half of the students with disabilities in New York State did not graduate. But most of those who earned local diplomas did so by relying on the Regents Competency Tests. State officials worry that without those tests, they could be looking at upwards of 5,000 students with disabilities who might never earn a diploma.

But if the new options are approved, state education officials believe most of the students who would have graduated under the old system will still be able to earn a diploma. Most, but not all. Officials expect that 7 percent fewer students with disabilities will graduate with local diplomas in 2015 than did in 2010.

Kim Sweet, the director of Advocates for Children, said that while the proposed options could make a dent in the graduation rate for disabled students, they were too restrictive.

"Why do you only get a safety net if you're a student with a disability?" she said. "There are also general education students who can't pass certain tests. The difference is one has a label and one doesn't."

Ms. Sweet's organization has estimated that if students had been unable to earn a local diploma in 2010, as many as 14,000 would not have graduated within four years, a figure that could do damage to the state's rising graduation rate.

"I think they're rightly concerned about the impact of the phase-out, but so far, raising the requirements for the local diploma has not reduced the graduation rate at all," said Dr. King. Over the last several years, the local diploma has shifted from requiring at least a score of 65 on two Regents exams, to four.

State education officials are also proposing other changes to the diplomas and certificates students can earn. In lieu of an I.E.P. diploma, a degree the state has awarded to students with disabilities who cannot earn a local diploma, but that is not accepted by colleges or the military, the state is creating the Skills and Achievement Commencement Credential.

They are also developing two new diplomas -- the Career and Technical Education Regents diploma and the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, or STEM Regents diploma -- which will allow students to replace the global history exam requirement with vocational certifications or additional math and science Regents tests.