Wednesday, May 18, 2011

High School Diplomas

As graduations loom, the issue of high school diplomas has come up in several forums. Our colleagues at Wrightslaw have dedicated their latest newsletter to reminding families to be mindful of the kind of diploma their child is on track to receive. They discuss the importance of obtaining a regular high school diploma if a student will want to attend any level of college. They also include a link to a terrific review of national policy and practice on this issue which appeared in a recent issue of the National PTA Magazine.

Meanwhile, here in New York, the New York State Board of Regents, which sets the rules state-wide for education policy, has just issued new rules clarifying diploma options for students at all ability levels.

As far back as we can remember, New York has offered an academic high school diploma, the Regents diploma, which signified that a student graduating high school met particular standards in a specific roster of courses. Students who did not pass the required number of Regents examinations (and passing the exam was a required part of passing the Regents course itself) could still graduate with a local diploma, but would not be eligible for Regents scholarships, which could offset some of the tuition in colleges located within the State and which signified that the student met a high standard of academic performance.

For the past number of years, in a laudable effort to raise the academic standards of high school students throughout the State, a push has been on to require ALL high school graduates from New York State public schools to receive a Regents diploma in order to graduate. The problem is that such a "one size fits all" standard doesn't recognize the realities of the State's diverse student population. For high achieving students, the Regents curriculum and accompanying exams are secondary challenges to the Advanced Placement coursework and exams. These high achieving students can earn a Regents Diploma with Advanced Standing or Honors. For students with very profound cognitive or other disabilities, an IEP "diploma" -- in reality a certificate of completion of the goals set out on the student's IEP -- may be a reasonable goal. But for a number of students with mild to moderate learning challenges that make Regents level courses and exams a real barrier, needing to pass these exams has been a significant hurdle.

New York has responded by postponing the implementation of an across-the-board Regents exam requirement, and permitting Regents Competency Tests (RCTs) for students with disabilities who could not pass the regular Regents exams. Now, the New York State Board of Regents has just announced that "the option to take the RCTs will not be available for any student entering grade 9 beginning in September 2011 and thereafter." After this cut off date, students with disabilities who pass Regents exams with a grade of 55-64 can receive a local diploma and all students will have the option to appeal their Regents scores and re-take Regents exams, with some limits.

Families and students in all states need to start planning early to consider what kind of diploma a student will seek to obtain, and what the options are if some of the courses or exams required for such a diploma are problematic for such students. Since an IEP "diploma" can limit post high school options, like admission to colleges and some tuition loans, students need to work towards the highest level diploma that they are capable of reaching.

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