New York State Eases Graduation Requirements for Students With Disabilities

By Christina A. Samuels — June 15, 2016 3 min read
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The New York Board of Regents voted Tuesday to make it easier for some students in special education to earn a high school diploma, the latest in a series of changes intended to ease the path to graduation for students with disabilities.

The new regulation requires district superintendents to automatically review a student’s record to see if he or she has demonstrated proficiency in enough subjects to earn a local diploma (New York state also has a Regents diploma, considered more rigorous.) The student’s final grade, course work, class tests and quizzes, and participation are all among the ingredients that go into determining if a student has met the learning standards for a given course. The new regulation was approved Tuesday and goes into effect immediately, meaning that special education students in the class of 2016 are eligible. But this option is only triggered if a student has:

  • A current individualized education program (students with disabilities who are covered under Section 504 are not eligible);
  • Passed the Regents exams in math and English/language arts;
  • Earned passing grades in all the courses required for graduation, including English/language arts, math, science, and social studies;
  • Taken—but not necessarily passed—the Regents exams in social studies and science, and in one optional course.

Like a Regents diploma, a local diploma can be used to enter the military or go on to higher education.

“Most students with disabilities can meet the state’s learning standards for graduation, so we want to be certain we give them every opportunity to demonstrate their ability,” State Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said in a video announcing the change, embedded below. “At the same time, these regulations strike the right balance by maintaining the rigor of our graduation requirements.”

Commissioner Elia - new graduation regulation from NYSED on Vimeo.

This modification is only the latest change that has been made to graduation requirements for students with disabilities in New York state. Before 2012, students both with and without disabilities were able to earn a local diploma with lower scores on the Regents exam. But in 2012, the Regents diploma became the main diploma that students were expected to aim for.

However, exceptions for students with disabilities were carved out from the start. Students with disabilities could get a local diploma with lower test scores. They could also go through a complex appeal process to earn a local diploma, or a “compensatory” process where a high score on one Regents exam could offset a lower score on another exam.

(An aside: Earlier this year, I wrote about the changing percentages of students enrolled in special education nationally. Special education enrollment has been trending up, with New York driving most of the increase in the most recent school year. I never got an answer from the state about why that might be happening, but a reader and advocate in New York emailed me later to suggest that school systems were intentionally classifying more students as having disabilities so that they would be eligible for local diplomas. That has not been confirmed, but it is an interesting demonstration of how state policy could affect special education enrollment.)

Abja Midha, a project director for Advocates for Children, an organization that supports multiple pathways for high school diplomas, said in an interview with Education Week that the new option is welcome—but that it comes with some concerns. First, it makes it even more complicated for families and schools to figure out just how a student can earn a diploma, though she said that concern is eased by the requirement that this option be considered automatically. Parents don’t have to request it.

Second, the local diploma option is primarily available to students with disabilities, and could be stigmatizing for them—particularly if they remain in New York, where the public better understands the difference between the diploma options.

Midha said that the state should consider changing the number of Regents exams required for a diploma. “There’s nothing magic about the number five,” and the new rule shows that the board may be open to considering this, she said.

The organization would also like to see the state move to performance-based assessments as an option for all students, not just students with disabilities.

“We appreciate the changes that are being made, but we do see a need for a wholesale review of what a good exam requirement is here in New York state,” Midha said.

A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.