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Diploma option brings excitement, concern

New York Teacher

Parents cheered on Dec. 11, 2017, when the state Board of Regents made the surprise announcement that a new non-test-based diploma option would be available for students with disabilities. Under this new option, which is an additional credential offered through the “superintendent’s determination” process introduced in 2017, students who are unable to pass the Regents ELA and math exams with a minimum score of 55 (or a successful appeal of a score between 52 and 54) may receive a local diploma if they first satisfy the requirements for a Career Development and Occupational Skills Commencement Credential. With this new option, there are now five safety-net local diploma options for students with disabilities.

There is reason for both excitement and concern.

On the plus side, this new diploma option reflects the Regents’ responsiveness to parents who argued that their sons and daughters should not be denied a diploma if they demonstrated proficiency by other means, such as by passing their courses, even if they were unable to pass the exams required for nondisabled students. Teachers will breathe a sigh of relief that their students will not have to labor endlessly to pass exams that may not fairly represent what they know and can do. And with a diploma in hand, these students will leave school with employment and education options unavailable to students who exit with a nondiploma credential.

Make no mistake: This change is a big deal. This is the first time in recent memory that New York State has offered a “real” diploma that does not require students to achieve a minimum score on a standardized assessment. For this reason, it is also uncharted territory.

What does this credential promise? Students with this credential will presumably be able to apply to community colleges, the civil service, the military and the skilled trades. The credential will only have value, though, if they have the knowledge and skills to pass the tests required for admission, acceptance or hiring in their chosen field or college.

Grading policies and promotion criteria are set at the school level and are supposed to apply equally to all students who participate in standardized assessments. But for as long as I can remember, it has been accepted that teachers have discretion to weigh factors not directly related to mastery of learning standards — such as effort, participation and behavior — more heavily in grading and making promotion decisions for students with disabilities.

At the end of the day, this approach to grading and promotion means that these decisions do not convey the same information for students with disabilities as they do for their nondisabled peers. If graduation decisions are going to be based on grades and whether students pass or fail courses, this practice needs to be re-examined. Parents, school leaders and students themselves need to know whether students have really mastered the learning standards of the class or course before conferring a diploma.

I understand the concerns about standardized testing. High-stakes tests have been misused, and the consequences for students, families and schools of the overreliance on testing are well-known. But lost in the debate has been the question of whether tests may have some value in an accountability system. Current research and many parent groups assert that standardized tests are critical measures of educational equity. Their arguments make sense. Grades vary from school to school and classroom to classroom, but standardized tests require all test-takers to answer the same questions and are scored in a “standard” manner. Test results, therefore, provide a means to compare the performance of individual students and groups of students. As such, tests can tell us whether achievement gaps, in this case between disabled and nondisabled students, are narrowing or growing.

The state Regents and the state education commissioner are committed to educational equity, and I’m sure they considered it before they introduced this new option. I look forward to hearing how, with the advent of this new graduation option, they plan to measure the achievement of students with disabilities from year to year in a way that permits valid comparisons with other groups of students. We have to make sure that the academic achievement of students with disabilities continues to be monitored so it moves in the right direction.

The new diploma option was approved on Dec. 11 for immediate implementation through emergency action. The DOE released its implementation guidance in mid-January. Final adoption will occur after the public comment process. I encourage you to review the new diploma option and let me know what you think. The UFT will be submitting comments to the state, and our comments ought to be informed by you, the members who work with students with disabilities. Please send your thoughts, concerns and suggestions to me no later than Feb. 7 at