Who Fails to Graduate High School? And, Why? Thinking Outside the Box (Part 2 Students with Disabilities)

Only about 50 percent of students with disabilities in the 2011 cohort graduated within four years   (NYSED Press release on NYS graduation rates)

Over the last eight years New York State has had five commissioners (Mills, Steiner, King, Wagner and Elia) who have all rolled out “cures,” sweeping initiatives to change outcomes for students, with very little impact.

Graduation rates have crept up a few points at a time, probably better data management and easing graduation requirements. The English Regents exam changed from a two-day, three hours each day to a one day three-hour exam – passing rates jumped, Global Studies has moved from covering two years of work (9th and 10th grades) to one year (10th grade).  The Students with Disabilities safety net drops the passing score to 55.  (Safety Net and Compensatory Option: read here) and under special circumstances students can pass Regents through an Appeals Process (Read description here).

Once again Albany plans to increase graduation rates by tweaking the graduation requirements.

One initiative calls for expanding the appeals process, a process that is rarely used, and, there is an assumption that expanding the appeals procedures would increase the passing rate.

Regents Appeals Process

The Department proposes to widen the score range for students who wish to appeal their Regents Exam result. This proposal is aimed at helping students who have traditionally struggled to earn a diploma and graduate.

Under the current regulation, students may appeal a failing score on a Regents Exam if their score is within three points of passing (62-64) and they:

  • Have taken the Regents Exam under appeal at least twice;
  • Present evidence that they have utilized academic help provided by their school in the subject tested by the Regents Exam under appeal;
  • Have an attendance rate of 95 percent;
  • Pass the course for which the appeal is being sought; and
  • Must be recommended for the appeal by their teacher or Department chairperson in the subject of the Regents Exam under appeal.

The proposal would widen the range of scores by two points to include scores of 60 to 64, permitting students to appeal scores within five points of passing on up to two Regents Exams. As with the current regulation, students who are granted one appeal by their district would earn a Regents diploma. Students granted two would earn a local diploma.

According to an initial analysis, approximately 4,800 students from the 2010 cohort would have met the testing requirements had the expanded appeal been an option. This option would have had a great impact on some of the State’s most vulnerable students. Of the 4,800 who would have earned a diploma with the expanded appeal, more than 3,400 would come from economically disadvantaged homes; 1,700 would be Hispanic; 1,500 would be Black; and nearly 1,000 would be ELLs.

Why does the Department assume that the appeal process would result in higher scores on the re-scoring of the exam? Was every exam incorrectly scored disadvantaging the student?  Until State Ed and the Department of Education prohibited re-scoring, re-scoring commonly referred to as “scrubbing,” was commonplace; is Albany “legalizing” scrubbing?  When we “scrubbed” Regents essay questions we almost always increased a grade to 65, yes; it was not based on any statistical anomaly, it was simply based on kindness.

Project Based Assessment

The Department also recommends the adoption of a new graduation option for students who have successfully completed all the coursework necessary to earn a Regents Diploma but who have not passed the requisite Regents Exams. This option would allow such students to complete a project-based assessment instead of having to pass the Regents Exam, as long as they have taken and passed the course and met the attendance requirements for the school district.

Could a student opt out of taking the Regents and opt into a project-based assessment option? Or, is the option only open to students who have failed the Regents Exam?  The Performance-Based Assessment Consortium high schools in New York State have an approved waiver and offer a project-based classroom; all instruction centers around the course-long construction of a portfolio and culminates in the defense of the portfolio at a roundtable made up of teachers and critical friends (Read a description of the process here).

Project-based assessments would give students who struggle with standardized tests another way to show their competency in a subject. The assessments will consist of a set of rigorous activities that a student must complete independently of classroom instruction in order to demonstrate proficiency in a content area to meet State graduation requirements. These assessments will be developed by teachers and will be designed to be as challenging as Regents Exams. They would be scored by trained evaluators based on a scoring rubric created by educators and established by the State.

I’m baffled, “The assessments will consist of a set of rigorous activities that a student must complete independently of classroom instruction,” are we returning to the “bad old days” of credit recovery?  A few hours tapping away at a computer to earn a credit; students are creating a document “as challenging as Regents Exams.” that is also “independent of classroom instruction”? An after-school activity?  BTW, who are thetrained evaluators based on a scoring rubric created by educators and established by the State”?  Who trains them? Who pays them?   What are the “rigorous activities” in Algebra 1 or Living Environment or Chemistry look like? Why would a student even take a Regents if s/he knew that there was a backup assessment process?

Rather than jumping to Albany generated “answers” perhaps addressing the needs of individual students would be a better place to start.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that  students with a disability are provided with “Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE)” that is tailored to their individual needs  and provide children with disabilities the same opportunity for education as those students who do not have a disability. The law requires an Individualized Education Program (IEP), Least Restrictive Environment (LRE), Appropriate Evaluation, Parent and Teacher Participation, and Procedural Safeguards.

 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.

The IEP team determines the class placement on the continuum of services, self-contained or a co-teaching classroom.  The self-contained classroom specifies the class size and whether a teacher aide is required. The teacher must be an appropriately licensed teacher, special education, and if the setting is a co-teaching classroom about a third of the class are students with IEPs with two teachers, a special education certified teacher and a content area certified teacher. The IEP team should determine “accommodations and modifications” as well as “how the student’s disabilities affect academic performance.”

The IEP team could determine whether or not the student should take the Regents Exam, and, if not, the appropriate type of assessment. If a student’s disability includes a computational skills deficit, why should the student be forced to take a Regents Exam that they cannot pass?  Perhaps the Regents Competency Tests should be resuscitated.

Who are the students with disabilities who are failing Regents Exams?  I suspect students in More Restrictive Environments (self-contained classes) are more likely to fail Regents. If so, can an IEP team exempt students from specific Regents exams?

Has the state identified schools, school districts and class configurations that have higher Regents passing rates? And, if so, why are the pass rates higher? More experienced teachers?  Effective common planning time?  Before we hop onto any idea let’s check out the underlying reasons for success.

In the early 1990s the Regents began a debate about the dual diploma system – the local and the Regents diploma. The local diploma was the predominant diploma, and the exit exams, the Regents Competency Exams (RCTs), were low level tests – perhaps 9th or 10th grade. After years of debate the Regents began the incremental phase-out of the RCTs; the process took ten years. Now the commissioner has recommended scaling back the Regents diploma standards.

“Finger in the dike” solutions will satisfy parents of students who are failing Regents exams; however, these “solutions” will negatively impact college and career readiness.

These are complex issues that commissioners and the Regents have only discussed around the edges.

Perhaps asking students, parent, teachers and principals would be a good place to start.


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