dialing back

Diploma rules for students with disabilities raise hope and fear

For months, advocates for students with special needs have been pushing the state to reconsider a safety net meant to help those students graduate.

But when the state’s top education policy-makers sat down in Albany Monday to discuss the issue, they instead floated the idea of making graduation requirements even easier for students who have disabilities.

This year, for the first time, all students in New York State will have to pass five Regents exams with a 65 or higher in order to graduate. In the past, students have had the option of getting a less rigorous “local diploma” with some scores of 55 or higher, with the number of 65’s required inching upward each year.

But the elimination of the local diploma doesn’t extend to students who require special education services: They will still be able to graduate with 55’s on their transcripts, even on all five required Regents exams.

Advocates say that leniency runs the risk of creating a second-class diploma for students with disabilities, similar to the IEP diploma that is being eliminated. Students had to pass exams known as Regents Competency Tests to get the diploma, but earning one did not qualify graduates for college, work, or the military.

Last month, a group of advocates officially asked the state to extend the local diploma option for all students rather than set students with special needs apart.

“By having a diploma that’s a disabilities-only diploma … it’s a stigmatizing act, singling out kids with disabilities,” said Stephen Boese, the executive director of the state’s Learning Disabilities Association. “Down the line one wonders if there will be a diminution of the diploma.”

Advocates have been making that case in letters, meetings, and phone calls to state officials. But yesterday, when State Education Department officials presented an updated graduation requirement proposal to the Board of Regents, who must approve changes, they suggested widening the safety net even more for students with disabilities.

The students would be allowed to score between 45 and 54 on one Regents exam and still graduate, provided that they had at least one other score of 65 or higher to counterbalance it, according to the proposal. To get credits, students would also have had to pass a class in the tested subject and have attended at least 95 percent of sessions.

Some members of the Board of Regents questioned whether students with disabilities, who typically have a lower attendance rate, could reasonably be expected to attend class 95 percent of the time. State officials said excused absences, as when a student is ill, would not count against them.

Overall, State Education Commissioner John King told the Regents, “We’ve gotten positive feedback in our field conversations about the compensatory model.” He said department officials estimated that as many as 20 to 30 percent of students who had relied on the competency exams to earn IEP diplomas would be able to earn a local diploma with the safety net option.

“We’re certainly not trying to lower the standard for disabilities,” said Jim DeLorenzo, SED’s statewide special education coordinator, during the meeting. “There are some disability-related issues with regard to areas where they can achieve very well and areas where they can achieve tremendous challenges and we’re trying to recognize that.”

Officials emphasized that the local diploma will not be exclusively the domain of students with special needs, because general education students who try multiple times to pass exams and come within a few points of a 65 might be permitted to graduate anyway. But doing so will require the student to file a written appeal for an exemption. Students with disabilities would receive the leniencies automatically, according to the proposal discussed on Monday.

The Regents are not slated to vote on the proposals until October, meaning that changes would not take effect for this year’s seniors and also that the public comment period, which is open now, could lead to other changes.

The advocates are planning to register comments arguing that the state is short-sighted by simply tinkering with Regents exam requirements to differentiate among students with wide-ranging needs. They have been pushing for the Regents to consider “multiple pathways” to graduation instead that would allow all students to show proficiency without passing potentially any Regents exams.

“The new safety net is good as far as it goes, but the fact is that there are going to be a lot of students with disabilities who are not going to succeed on any of the standardized tests,” he said.

Students without disabilities also struggle to pass the required exams, and they too would benefit from a more robust rethinking of what it should take to graduate from high school in New York City, said Gisela Alvarez, a project director for Advocates for Children.

Last year, about 8,000 city students graduated with the local diploma option because they scored a 65 or higher on only four of the five required exams. Some fear that number of students could be kept from graduation this year, under the more stringent requirements.

Some changes appear to be in the pipeline. For example, the state is exploring ways to develop Career and Technical Education assessments that could count toward Regents diploma requirements, potentially substituting for the global history exam, which is most frequently failed.

But any new pathways are years away from becoming live options. State education officials said their goal is to present a progress report on the CTE pathways proposal by September, make recommendations by December, and then create action items to be voted on.

Despite the long runway, Alvarez said she is optimistic about the future, even as the state might make missteps along the way.

“This conversation has been going on for a long time, but it’s only been going on in pieces. The state had not taken a look at this in a comprehensive manner,” she said. “It has been a fragmented conversation up until now.”

after douglas

Betsy DeVos avoids questions on discrimination as school safety debates reach Congress

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos prepares to testify at a House Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing in Rayburn Building on the department's FY2019 budget on March 20, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos fielded some hostile questions on school safety and racial discrimination as she defended the Trump administration’s budget proposal in a House committee hearing on Tuesday.

The tone for the hearing was set early by ranking Democrat Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who called aspects DeVos’s prepared remarks “misleading and cynical” before the secretary had spoken. Even the Republican subcommittee chair, Rep. Tom Cole, expressed some skepticism, saying he was “concerned about the administration continuing to request cuts that Congress has rejected.”

During nearly two hours of questioning, DeVos stuck to familiar talking points and largely side-stepped the tougher queries from Democrats, even as many interrupted her.

For instance, when Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from Texas, complained about proposed spending cuts and asked, “Isn’t it your job to ensure that schools aren’t executing harsher punishments for the same behavior because [students] are black or brown?” DeVos responded by saying that students of color would benefit from expanded school choice programs.

Lee responded: “You still haven’t talked about the issue in public schools as it relates to black and brown students and the high disparity rates as it relates to suspensions and expulsions. Is race a factor? Do you believe that or not?” (Recent research in Louisiana found that black students receive longer suspensions than white students involved in the same fights, though the difference was very small.)

Again, DeVos did not reply directly.

“There is no place for discrimination and there is no tolerance for discrimination, and we will continue to uphold that,” she said. “I’m very proud of the record of the Office of Civil Rights in continuing to address issues that arise to that level.”

Lee responded that the administration has proposed cuts to that office; DeVos said the reduction was modest — less than 1 percent — and that “they are able to do more with less.”

The specific policy decision that DeVos faces is the future of a directive issued in 2014 by the Obama administration designed to push school districts to reduce racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions. Conservatives and some teachers have pushed DeVos to rescind this guidance, while civil rights groups have said it is crucial for ensuring black and Hispanic students are not discriminated against.

That was a focus of another hearing in the House on Tuesday precipitated by the shooting last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, falsely claimed in his opening statement that Broward County Public Schools rewrote its discipline policy based on the federal guidance — an idea that has percolated through conservative media for weeks and been promoted by other lawmakers, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Utah Sen. Mike Lee. In fact, the Broward County rules were put into place in 2013, before the Obama administration guidance was issued.

The Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden, a leading critic of Obama administration’s guidance, acknowledged in his own testimony that the Broward policy predated these rules. But he suggested that policies like Broward’s and the Obama administration’s guidance have made schools less safe.

“Faced with pressure to get the numbers down, the easiest path is to simply not address, or to not record, troubling, even violent, behavior,” he said.

Kristen Harper, a director with research group Child Trends and a former Obama administration official, disagreed. “To put it simply, neither the purpose nor the letter of the federal school discipline guidance restrict the authority of school personnel to remove a child who is threatening student safety,” she said.

There is little, if any, specific evidence linking Broward County’s policies to how Stoneman Douglas shooter Nicholas Cruz was dealt with. There’s also limited evidence about whether reducing suspensions makes schools less safe.

Eden pointed to a study in Philadelphia showing that the city’s ban on suspensions coincided with a drop in test scores and attendance in some schools. But those results are difficult to interpret because the prohibition was not fully implemented in many schools. He also cited surveys of teachers expressing concerns about safety in the classroom including in Oklahoma CityFresno, California; and Buffalo, New York.

On the other hand, a recent study found that after Chicago modestly reduced suspensions for the most severe behaviors, student test scores and attendance jumped without any decline in how safe students felt.

DeVos is now set to consider the repeal of those policies on the Trump administration’s school safety committee, which she will chair.

On Tuesday, DeVos said the committee’s first meeting would take place “within the next few weeks.” Its members will be four Cabinet secretaries: DeVos herself, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.

on the run

‘Sex and the City’ star and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon launches bid for N.Y. governor

Cynthia Nixon on Monday announced her long-anticipated run for New York governor.

Actress and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon announced Monday that she’s running for governor of New York, ending months of speculation and launching a campaign that will likely spotlight education.

Nixon, who starred as Miranda in the TV series “Sex and the City,” will face New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in September’s Democratic primary.

Nixon has been active in New York education circles for more than a decade. She served as a  longtime spokeswoman for the Alliance for Quality Education, a union-backed advocacy organization. Though Nixon will step down from that role, according to a campaign spokeswoman, education promises to be a centerpiece of her campaign.

In a campaign kickoff video posted to Twitter, Nixon calls herself “a proud public school graduate, and a prouder public school parent.” Nixon has three children.

“I was given chances I just don’t see for most of New York’s kids today,” she says.

Nixon’s advocacy began when her oldest child started school, which was around the same time the recession wreaked havoc on education budgets. She has slammed Gov. Cuomo for his spending on education during his two terms in office, and she has campaigned for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

In 2008, she stepped into an emotional fight on the Upper West Side over a plan to deal with overcrowding and segregation that would have impacted her daughter’s school. In a video of brief remarks during a public meeting where the plan was discussed, Nixon is shouted down as she claims the proposal would lead to a “de facto segregated” school building.

Nixon faces steep competition in her first run for office. She is up against an incumbent governor who has amassed a $30 million war chest, according to the New York Times. If elected, she would be the first woman and the first openly gay governor in the state.