NYC Student Tackles the Last Test Standing Between Her and a High School Diploma

Wednesday, June 25, 2014


When Radio Rookie Danielle Motindabeka came to the United States at age 13, she didn’t speak English. By the time she was in high school, Danielle had mastered the language well enough to pass six Regents exams and maintain an 85 average. There was just one thing keeping her from earning a diploma: the U.S. History Regents exam.

Danielle has failed the U.S. History exam three times. It is one of the five Regents required to earn a diploma in New York State. She said she felt frustrated by this obstacle. She overcame so much since coming to the United States. She left her mother in the Congo to join her father. He then left Danielle behind with her step-family to live in a series of homeless shelters. 

Despite all the tumult, Danielle made a home for herself. She was looking forward to college.

In many ways, Danielle's story is not unusual. The graduation requirements in New York State have proven challenging to English Language Learners, according to the most recent state data. The graduation rates for English Language Learners has dropped three years in a row, and is now just over 31 percent statewide.

In New York City, the ELL graduation rate fell to 32.3 percent in 2013 from 39.4 percent the previous year.

Yet Danielle's story is exceptional because of her particular experiences and her perseverance. She has taken the U.S. History exam three times this year without success. She has decided to go for a fourth and final attempt. She finds out the results later this week.

This story is part of American Graduate, a public media initiative addressing the dropout crisis, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.  

Produced by:

Danielle Motindabeka and Kaari Pitkin


Patricia Willens


More in:

Comments [24]

Beth M from Jersey City, NJ

Congratulations, Danielle! I know that I'm a little late with this post. I've thought of you many times over the summer, and have been meaning to check back on the test results. I hope you are still basking in your accomplishment. Your story has really stuck with me, and will continue to be a source of inspiration to me, when I'm climbing that every day hill called "life". You are AMAZING!!! Keep at it, clever girl!

Sep. 08 2014 09:38 PM
Maeve Townsend

Congratulations, Danielle! You are an amazing young woman who will soar!

Jul. 03 2014 12:59 PM
Robin West from New York City

A 65 on the Regent's exam does not correspond to a 65%. It is a scaled score that corresponds to a very low percent. I think it's really sad that the prinicpal of Walter Panas either doesn't know that or chose to pretend that the two are equivalent. ELLs need support but they also need to be college ready or they will flunk out of college. It's a good thing that this young lady took this test and finally passed outright. High school is free. College is not. If she lacked the skills to pass very basic tests in high school it is unlikely that she will graduate from college without taking classes multiple times. The bar is much higher. Consider this a lesson and prepare for much harder fights!

Jun. 27 2014 03:04 PM
J. R. Weldon from New York City

Congratulations... on two counts.

First, thank you for introducing your listeners to someone who not only takes pride in what she does, but as so many have said, ownership for her apparent failures. This girl appears to sensitive, thoughtful and articulate. I have empathy for her inability to pass the Regent's Exam in US History. Many people choke when it comes to taking these high pressured tests that all too often test one's ability to take a test rather than one's knowledge of the subject. I hope she made it.

Second, thank you for AT LAST airing a Radio Rookie report by someone who is articulate and sounds intelligent. Most of these reports are not worth the time to listen to them. They give voice to inarticulate, seemingly unintelligent teenagers who appear bent on doing nothing but whining about a world that does not understand them. Who cares?

I wish Public Radio would do more to elevate our minds with these vignettes - as this report does - and less to pander to the lowest common denominator, as most of the Radio Rookies series does.

Jun. 27 2014 12:03 PM
Lianne S. from New York, NY

You are an amazing woman and I could not more amazed of all that you have accomplished. Congratulations on passing your exam! You have worked so hard and tirelessly over the years to succeed. I wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors!

Jun. 27 2014 11:09 AM
Kaari Pitkin from New York, NY

Thank you to all who wrote to encourage Danielle! We so appreciate your thoughtful and generous responses.

First the most important news: Danielle passed! To read about how she found out, you can check out a blog post by Rookies producer Courtney Stein:

To clarify a few points raised in the comments section, that we didn't have time to go through in the story:

1) Unfortunately, the rule for appealing a Regents score between 62-64 requires a student has 95% attendance for the course. The time that Danielle scored a 63, she had missed two classes, which meant her attendance was slightly worse than 95% (the class met two days a week), so her appeal was denied.

2) In terms of a college waiving the requirement she have a high school diploma, Danielle is planning to attend a CUNY school. From our research, CUNY schools require a HS diploma. Though I suppose it's possible with the right contact, a school could waive it.

3) It is an excellent question as to why her school didn't offer her a local diploma. As I had understood it, she would've needed to have an IEP, though it seems that's not the case given all the credits she had and the number of exams she'd passed. I will have Danielle ask her school about that, as it seems it would've been a good option. Though, happily, now a moot point in Danielle's case.

Thank you again for your thoughts!

Kaari Pitkin
Senior Producer
WNYC Radio

Jun. 27 2014 08:22 AM
Susan B Strauss from Cortlandt Manor, NY

Good Morning,

I am the principal at Walter Panas High School, in Westchester County (Cortlandt Manor), and this email is for Danielle Motindabeka.

Danielle, I was astounded by your report about having to take the US History Regents exam so many times. Your dedication and commitment to this is to be commended!

I hope that by the time you see this email you will have gotten positive results from your most recent re-take of this exam. If that is not the case, you need to know the following, from NY State Education law...

A student in their senior year who has taken a Regents exam at least twice, and receives a grade of within a few points of passing (62, 63 or 64%) can receive local credit by the principal filing paperwork for this with the state. This means that a local diploma can be issued, and the student officially graduates.

Again, I hope that you will have been able to pass at least a 65%, and earn the Regents diploma; but, if not, then you can still graduate if your exam grade falls just a few points below the 65%. While many may make a big deal about a Regents diploma, it really holds no more meaning than a local high school diploma. Colleges only look at transcripts to see grades, not at what the words are on a diploma. When I graduated from high school, it was a local diploma (I chose to not get the required number of years of foreign language study required for the Regents diploma). This did not prevent me from being accepted at SUNY New Paltz for my undergraduate degree, or at New York University for my graduate degree.

My best wishes to you, and if you have any questions at all, I am more than ready to respond.


Susan B. Strauss
Walter Panas High School
300 Croton Avenue
Cortlandt Manor, NY 10567

Jun. 26 2014 10:51 AM
Adey from NYC

Hi Danielle! Like you, I came from Africa (Ethiopia) as a teen and can relate to your struggles. You have a bright future ahead of you and I have no doubt that you will overcome this challenge. I pray that God opens doors for you. Don't give up! God bless you!!!

Jun. 26 2014 08:06 AM

Hello Everyone its me Danielle Motindabeka i really appreciate all the positive comments from all, i took the time to read over every single comments it made me feel like i have people out there who can relate to me, that i can count on when i need help not only that but also who care about me THANK YOU SOOOOOOO MUCH ...i will definitely inform you onces THE RESULTS ARE IN .

Jun. 26 2014 12:21 AM
leta weintraub from manhattan, NY

I was very taken by this story and disturbed that there did not seem to be another way for Danielle to move ahead. I shared the story with my husband who is a college professor. He says it is within a college or university's ability to waive the HS diploma requirement (or other requirements). Please tell Danielle to talk to the admissions people at the college she was accepted at and ask them if there is anything they can do. Her situation seems to me to be one that would allow for dispensation. Danielle has clearly achieved and is hard working. I wish her success in all her endeavors.

Jun. 25 2014 10:03 PM
Anina Karmen from Washington Sq area

Why are students tested on their ability to memorize facts at *all*? In life, we are NOT forced to commit things to memory. Even before the Internet, research skills were more valued than memorization of facts.

It's been useful to have the multiplication table memorized. Other than that, there isn't anything that comes to mind (so to speak:)

How about offering open book tests as an option for Regents Exams?

Jun. 25 2014 06:38 PM
Deborah Lipstadt from Atlanta, Ga.

I am a professor and have been for over 35 years. i would love to have a students with this much "stick to it-ness." This young woman is sensitive, thoughtful, a fighter, and so much more. Her situation is ludicrous. The tyranny of the test score. Someone (her gudance counselor?) should have stood up for her.

I wish her great good luck... God knows she deserves it.

Jun. 25 2014 06:02 PM
Chriss from Montclair

Tell me again what else High School can do for Danielle? She got into college-- someone else, looking at her circumstance can see that this girl has IT.

But for NY, this isn't enough.

He's had tremendous loss in her life, struggled through it, and STILL got into college.

The NY State Education folks should be embarrassed that they have no way for this child to move on.

As a Professor, I know the value of education, but I'm not blind by how overcoming adversity is AS (if not more) valuable than some dumb test.

Lastly, the Regents Director or Chancellor in the story was also an embarrassment. His non-personal answer to her question is telling. His pat- "I really admire you... I encourage you..." b/s was no more than a pat on the head to this little minority girl.

I wish her the best, it seems the NYRegents Industrial complex has done her wrong, her school did her wrong. But thankfully WNYC introduced me to an extraordinary kid.

Jun. 25 2014 05:59 PM

She actually could graduate with a 62-64, if her school appealed on her behalf. Love the story, and hope that she doesn't need the appeal.

Jun. 25 2014 03:36 PM
Michelle E.

Danielle, when you pass this test (and you will!), you will be a WORLDBEATER! You have heart.

Jun. 25 2014 01:47 PM
Cyn from NYC

You are amazing, and I, like many other people, want to hear how you did and figure out how to help you if you need it. I am a former NYC history and English teacher, and have worked with hundreds of students to help them through these; I would be honored to tutor you through this if another test becomes necessary - though I hope that's not the case.

Please post the outcome! It's amazing how many people really do care and will help when you "put it out there!"

Jun. 25 2014 12:37 PM
Robert Kennedy from Bloomfield, NJ

Sorry, Danielle, I'm not that sympathetic. If you earned an 85 average, you presumably know how to study and pass a test like this. Clearly your English skills (as you demonstrated on the radio) are not holding you back.

The most useful thing I can tell you is that you are NOT inferior and should not be soliciting cheap sympathy from white liberals, many of whom only wish to assuage their white guilt. "Some" of them really believe you need help because you ARE inferior. They'll just never, ever tell you that. They never tell it to themselves, but they do believe it.

I do wish you the best. You will EARN this and make it a badge of honor, not an albatross that will prevent you from earning things only your hard won efforts can earn.


Jun. 25 2014 11:24 AM
Beth M from Jersey City

Danielle, I heard your story on the radio this morning. I am rooting for you, and I really hope you will let me know if you passed. If not, I would very much like to help you achieve this goal that you have worked so hard for. Please do not give up! If this last try was not "the one", I hope you will contact me (or one of your other supporters on this wall, or all of us!), and we will work together to make this happen! You have overcome so many obstacles to this point, ON YOUR OWN. I am so disappointed in the others who you reached out to, but know that you have reached new people with your radio segment WHO CARE, and truly want to help you achieve your dreams! Don't give up. Let us help! You are amazing. Please be in touch.

Jun. 25 2014 09:21 AM
John B from Brooklyn

Hi, I heard your story this morning and it brought tears to my eyes...then my wife said to me "you can help this girl". I was a history major in college, and love history to this day, I tutored my 2 daughters through their History Regents exams. I do not know how to get in touch with you other than on this comment page, but I would be honored to work with you to help you achieve you goal. There is no time to loose. Email me and we will work this out.

Jun. 25 2014 08:43 AM
Andree Lockwood from Manhattan

I have my fingers crossed for you, Danielle - congratulations on hanging in there and on your determination and perseverance. I bet you will pass! But if not, please don't give up - you have too much to offer the world!
Instead, come over a few blocks to Manhattan Comprehensive Night & Day High School, 2nd Ave and 15th Street - we're a transfer school with older, many ELL students and we work to help you pass your Regents! We know all our students by name and create individualized help for you including tutoring and other services. Sending you my best thoughts and wishes.

Jun. 25 2014 08:38 AM
john from office

Stepfather helds for the door and "family" ends up in 5 homeless shelters. Another example of African American dads not parenting their kids.

This Radio Rookie appears to be a striver, I am with her. I hope for the best for her. Note she speaks better english then many prior "radio Rookies", good for her.

Jun. 25 2014 08:31 AM
Phyllis from NYC

I admire you, you obviously have what it takes to succeed. Please let me know if you don't pass, we will get you a tutor so you will. Good luck hope it goes well.

Jun. 25 2014 08:27 AM
fuva from harlemworld

Why would this be the "fourth and final attempt"?

Hey, Danielle, DON'T. YOU. GIVE. UP. It is CLEARLY not part of your character. You are a SURVIVOR, a THRIVER and will persevere in life.

Jun. 25 2014 06:52 AM

I've take my hat off to you, "If i had one" But what you did was very mature of you. Alot of kid's need to listen to this because they never know when they have to do something on their own, life isn't easy for a high school student especially if you come from another country. What you did was something that would change the world, Heck it probably already did. But congratulation and i really do hope your degree so you can head off to the college you was accepted too and someday return home and help your mother, i make me cry to see how family have to be apart, and people like me who have parents so close that love me take advantage of it, but your story was a wake up call me for. And i want to really take the time to thank you for sharing it also i hope you dreams and wishes come true. Take of yourself in life and ones again congratulations.

Jun. 25 2014 06:41 AM

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