alternative pathways

Regents approve new path to graduation using a skills certificate

PHOTO: Cassandra Giraldo

Students will now be able to substitute a skills certificate for a fifth Regents exam in the latest shift meant to ease the path to high school graduation in New York.

State policymakers approved the new way for students to earn a high school degree on Monday. Starting this year, all students will be able to earn a Career Development and Occupational Studies credential, an alternative certificate created in 2013 for students with disabilities to demonstrate that they were ready for employment.

Now, any student will be able to combine that credential with four other Regents exams to earn a high school diploma.

The measure is part of the board’s broader effort to find more ways to allow students to earn a high school diploma. In 2012, the board began increasing the score needed to pass Regents exams as part of its effort to raise standards. But officials have also raised concerns about students being denied a diploma because of their inability to pass a fifth Regents exam, often global history.

Since then, the board has been searching for ways to help more students graduate, particularly English language learners and students with disabilities. The Regents have already approved a “4+1” option, which allows students to take four required Regents exams and show proficiency in a fifth subject, like art.

The CDOS credential — which requires students to build a career plan and study career and technical education, or have job experience such as shadowing a professional or working at an internship — will now be an additional option for students.

But CDOS measure did not pass without controversy. Only just over half the board members voted in favor of the change.

“I’m just concerned about the rigor that is here,” said Regent James Tallon. “We’re just at the beginning of alternate pathways discussions.”

Expanding graduation options poses tricky problems for policymakers, who want to see more students have access to college and employment while keeping standards high enough for diplomas to retain their significance. State Commissioner MaryEllen Elia suggested that substituting the CDOS credential for a final Regents exam is intended to toe that line.

But some Regents raised concerns about the value of the CDOS credential, and pointed out that this solution still leaves few options for students who cannot pass four Regents exams. Though it was created to provide a meaningful certification for students with disabilities who could not earn a traditional diploma, the CDOS credential has not been respected by employers, said Regent Roger Tilles.

“The problem is that nobody accepts them,” Tilles said. “The Army doesn’t, colleges don’t, and employers don’t. We need to make a concerted effort to say, hey, the CDOS is worth something.”

Abja Midha, a project director at Advocates for Children who works to establish alternative pathways to graduation for students, said the measures are a step in the right direction. She also agrees it leaves questions for students who struggle to pass Regents exams.

“We do think that it’s a good step forward,” Midha said. But she also asked, “What do we do about those student who are in the meantime are struggling with exams but have mastered standards?”

The measure could impact thousands of students across the state, state education officials said. In the 2014-15 school year, 1,820 students earned a CDOS credential, according to the state, but that number is likely to rise if all students can qualify for it.

The Regents also expanded the appeals process for students who just barely failed a Regents exam by two points. Before, students could appeal a score of 62 to 64. Now, they will be able to appeal scores as low as 60.

The Regents also eliminated an attendance requirement connected to the appeals process.

beyond high school

Tennessee leads nation in FAFSA filings for third straight year

PHOTO: TN.gov
Bill Haslam has been Tennessee's governor since 2011.

Equipping more Tennesseans with the tools to succeed after high school has been a hallmark of Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration. And the efforts seem to be paying off as the governor heads into his final 18 months in office.

Haslam announced on Thursday that the state has set another new record for the number of high school seniors filing their Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as FAFSA.

With 73.5 percent completing the form for the upcoming academic year — an increase of 3.2 percent from last year — Tennessee led the nation in FAFSA filings for the third straight year, according to the governor’s office.

The increase isn’t surprising, given that students had a longer period to fill out the form last year. In order to make the process more user-friendly, the FAFSA window opened on Oct. 1 instead of Jan. 1.

But the increase remains significant. The FAFSA filing rate is one indicator that more students are pursuing educational opportunities beyond a high school diploma.

Getting students ready for college and career has been a major focus under Haslam, a businessman and former Knoxville mayor who became governor in 2011. He launched his Drive to 55 initiative in 2013 with the goal that at least 55 percent of Tennesseans will have postsecondary degrees or other high-skill job certifications by 2025.

“The continued surge in FAFSA filing rates shows the Drive to 55 is changing the college-going culture in Tennessee,” Haslam said in a news release. “First-time freshman enrollment in Tennessee has grown 13 percent in the past two years and more students than ever are going to college. As a state, we have invested in making college accessible and open to everyone and students are hearing the message.”

According to calculations from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, Tennessee led all states by a large margin this year. The closest states or districts were Washington D.C., 64.8 percent; Delaware, 61.6 percent; New Jersey, 61 percent; and Massachusetts, 60.4 percent.

The commission calculated the filing rates using data provided through June 30 from the U.S. Department of Education.

Filing the FAFSA is a requirement to qualify for both state and federal financial aid and is part of the application process for most colleges and universities across the nation.

To get more students to complete the form, state and local FAFSA drives have been organized in recent years to connect Tennessee students with resources, guidance and encouragement.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander has championed bipartisan efforts to simplify the FAFSA process. The Tennessee Republican and former governor introduced legislation in 2015 that would reduce the FAFSA paperwork from a hefty 108 questions down to two pertaining to family size and household income.

You can read more information about the FAFSA in Tennessee here.

an almost-deal

Albany deal appears close after Assembly passes two-year extension of mayoral control

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie at a 2015 press conference with Democratic colleagues

After weeks of haggling by state lawmakers — and a day spent huddling behind closed doors — the stage is set for a possible two-year extension of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s control of city schools.

The Assembly passed a bill in the wee hours of Thursday morning that outlines both the extension and a number of other provisions, including the reauthorization of local taxes and the renaming of the Tappan Zee Bridge for the late Governor Mario Cuomo. Notably, it does not include sweeteners for the charter school sector, which Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie has forcefully opposed.

The state Senate is expected to return for a vote Thursday afternoon, though it is not yet clear if a deal has been reached. Scott Reif, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, did not confirm a final agreement, but told reporters Wednesday night that negotiations were “moving in the right direction.”

According to Politico, the text of the bill was released just before 11:30 p.m. and passed the Assembly around 1 a.m., by a vote of 115-15.

The bill was passed in an “extraordinary session” called by Governor Andrew Cuomo this week after lawmakers failed to reach a deal during the regular legislative session, which ended last Wednesday. Mayoral control is set to expire Friday at midnight, an imminent deadline that’s led to a flurry of “what-ifs.”

If the Senate approves the deal, it would be a victory for Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has repeatedly sought multi-year extensions but been granted only one-year reprieves. It would also allay the fears of education experts on both sides of the political aisle, who have spoken out on the need to retain mayoral control rather than returning to a decentralized system run by 32 community school boards.

Losing mayoral control “would be devastating,” wrote schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña in a June 19 op-ed. “If Albany lets mayoral control lapse, there will be no one accountable for progress.”

But not everyone was pleased with the way things have gone down this week. “Today’s extraordinary session produced nothing to celebrate,” wrote Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb in a statement released after the vote. “There is no victory in completing work that should have been done weeks ago. No one deserves applause for passing bills in the middle of the night out of public view.”