Students with Disabilities and High School Graduation: Can the State Create Additional Graduation Pathways Without “Tracking” Students?

The New York State Education Department today released high school graduation rates for the 2011 cohort (students who entered 9th grade in 2011). The overall graduation rate for the 2011 cohort increased to 78.1 percent, up 1.7 percentage points from 76.4 percent for the 2010 cohort.

Only about 50 percent of students with disabilities in the 2011 cohort graduated within four years.

(New York State Education Department Press Release)

Half of students with disabilities do not graduate in four years.  For decades the state offered a regents diploma and a local diploma alternative. The regents diploma required passing five regents exams (English, Science, Mathematics, American History and Global History); the local diploma required passing the Regents Competency Test (RCT), a test at about the ninth grade level. In the mid-nineties, after years of debate the state moved to a single regents diploma and began the phase-out of the local (RCT) diploma.

Currently the only diploma option is New York State is the regents diploma.

All students, regular education and students with disabilities (fka special education) must pass courses and exams to qualify for the regents diploma, except for the cohort of students with “moderate or severe” disabilities

There is a vast array of statute and regulation establishing the rights of students with disabilities and proscribing the types of education. The following is a summary of the requirements.

 The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) … ensures students with a disability are provided with Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) that is tailored to their individual needs …  the goal of IDEA is to provide children with disabilities the same opportunity for education as those students who do not have a disability.

 The sections of the law requires an Individualized Education Program (IEP), Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), Least Restrictive Environment (LRE), Appropriate Evaluation, Parent and Teacher Participation, and Procedural Safeguards

The act requires that schools create an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for each student who is found to be eligible under both the federal and state eligibility/disability standards. The IEP is the cornerstone of a student’s educational program. It specifies the services to be provided and how often, describes the student’s present levels of performance and how the student’s disabilities affect academic performance, and specifies accommodations and modifications to be provided for the student.

 IEP team must include at least one of the child’s regular education teachers (if applicable), a special education teacher, someone who can interpret the educational implications of the child’s evaluation, such as a school psychologist, any related service personnel deemed appropriate or necessary, and an administrator or CSE (Committee of Special Education) representative who has adequate knowledge of the availability of services in the district and the authority to commit those services on behalf of the child. Parents are considered to be equal members of the IEP team along with the school staff.  The IEP must place the student in a Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) which provides “…access to the general curriculum to meet the challenging expectations established for all children” (that is, it meets the approximate grade-level standards of the state educational agency)

Simply put, the LRE is the environment most like that of typical children in which the child with a disability can succeed academically (as measured by the specific goals in the student’s IEP) and asks,

  1. Can an appropriate education in the general education classroom with the use of supplementary aids and services be achieved satisfactorily?
  2. If a student is placed in a more restrictive setting, is the student “integrated” to the “maximum extent appropriate”?

The general education classroom option is called a co-teaching classroom; a subject area teacher and a special education certified teacher in the same classroom, about a third of the students in the co-teaching classroom are students with IEPs. The special education teacher modifies the instruction pursuant to the IEP of the student.   Other students are placed in “more restrictive setting,” self-contained classrooms, with lower class sizes and frequently with a teacher aide.  There has been a sharp reduction in the number of self-contained classrooms.

Although the student with a disability may be entitled to additional time on tests, once again, pursuant to the IEP, the student must meet the same requirements as far as passing the required courses and regents exams.

The commissioner, in her presser, referenced a number of possible pathways to improve graduation rates for students with disabilities.

Whether these pathways comply with law is open to question.

 These proposals include widening the score range for any students who wish to appeal their Regents Exam result;

The appeal/re-scoring option is rarely used and onerous, most school districts are unaware of the option, and, would the re-scoring increase a grade?

establishing a graduation pathway in Career Development and Occupational Studies (CDOS);

The CDOS credential is not a diploma, the credential is offered to students in sites designed for “moderately and severely handicapped” students, such as BOCES sites in the state and District 75 sites in New York City.  It is unrealistic to expect that general education high schools could offer the credential (Read the description of the CDOS credential here)

and the creation of a project-based assessment for students who pass coursework required for a diploma but who have not passed required Regents Exams.

Forty high schools have a waiver from New York State to substitute a portfolio-roundtable system in lieu of the regents exams. (See the performance-based consortium (PBAC) website for a description here). The PBAC schools utilize a different instructional model – students work on performance assessed projects throughout the school year culminating in the submission of the portfolio with a roundtable of teachers and “critical friends” questioning the student and, using a rubric, assess the portfolio.

The danger is replicating the credit recovery debacle. Schools purchased a software package, such as Plato (See website here), the student worked at the computer with the general supervision of a teacher, and earned a credit.  Instead of the 54 hours required for course credit a student could earn a credit with substantially less time.  Creating a “project-based assessment” that is equivalent to a regents exam is a challenge.

These new options are intended to give all students—especially those with disabilities, English language learners (ELL), and students at risk of dropping out—additional ways of earning a diploma while continuing to measure them against the State’s rigorous standards.

The commissioner suggests a number of alternative pathways, the source of the pathways are the IEP process. The IEP “specifies the services to be provided and how often, describes the student’s present levels of performance and how the student’s disabilities affect academic performance, and specifies accommodations and modifications to be provided for the student,” the members of IEP team determine the pathway.

Perhaps it is time for the commissioner to explore the creation of an alternative exam, a backup for the regents exam. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of students who can pass two, three or four regents exams, not all five, especially with the new Common Core exams. If a student with disabilities can pass all of their subjects, and not all of the regents exams, should they be deprived of a diploma?

Can the state create a diploma “with conditions” that are specified on the diploma?

Some would argue that this type of option should be available to all students; however, we must not create a “tracking” system. Our goal must be a regents diploma for all, with the realization that for some students, the pathway is not realistic.

It’s time for the state to begin a dialogue.

One response to “Students with Disabilities and High School Graduation: Can the State Create Additional Graduation Pathways Without “Tracking” Students?

  1. Why did you take away non regents diplomas?? Not every child is a regents kid. Plus we are the only state that requires regents diplomas .. Discriminating against kids that are not regents level it should totally be eliminated and be equal across the board.


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