a new path

Legislators join chorus of calls for new graduation options in New York state

PHOTO: Seth McConnell, The Denver Post

As soon as he had the floor during Tuesday’s joint legislative hearing, Assemblyman Dean Murray of Long Island zeroed in on an issue that he said has been bothering him.

“It seems we’re basing graduation — in many people’s opinion, including myself — too much on test scores,” Murray said.

Murray is one of several legislators who latched onto an issue the State Education Department is currently tackling: How to find new, legitimate ways for students to graduate if they struggle to pass required Regents exams. The Board of Regents, New York’s education policymaking body, opened up several new options last year, but support from legislators is key if the state wants to make more options broadly available.

“The opportunities to look at different approaches to graduation are important,” State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said during testimony. “That, of course, takes funding.”

The state is interested in piloting “project-based assessments,” which would evaluate students on a series of tasks, or tests that assess foreign language skills. But developing those alternatives requires money. (The Board of Regents sets education policy, but state lawmakers control the budget.)

Though some lawmakers expressed support for new graduation options at Tuesday’s hearing, securing funding is likely to be a battle. The Regents asked for $13 million to explore these pathways, but Cuomo’s proposal did not include that funding.

The Regents’ interest in expanding graduation options stems from concerns that deserving students are falling short of the state’s requirements.

A 2012 state decision required students to pass five Regents exams with a score of 65, instead of the previously required 55, to receive a traditional diploma. In 2014, the Regents provided a buffer of sorts by deciding students could substitute a fifth required Regents exam for an alternative route in an area like the arts or career and technical education.

Last year, they went even further. In March, they decided students could swap out a final Regents exam for a skills certificate and in June, state officials made sweeping changes to graduation requirements for students with disabilities. Under the new rules, some students with disabilities could earn a “local” diploma by passing only the math and English Regents exams.

But without more widely accessible exams, those students may find there are only limited options at their schools.

Elia gave some clues during her testimony about the direction the state education department is headed. She said she is “very interested” in piloting portfolio-based tests and suggested the state is also looking into creating new science assessments.

Any mention of additional options is music to the ears of Senator Todd Kaminsky, who has been a leading legislator calling for more ways to help students graduate. Kaminsky hosted a panel recently in Long Island attended by Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa, and urged state officials to continue down their current path.

“When you talk about 400-plus lives being improved by your measures that’s great,” Kaminsky said, referring to the number of students with disabilities who graduated under the new provisions passed in June. “I just want to let you know that people are now hoping for a next step, or a follow-up step this year, as a way to recognize the potential of all students.”

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.

First Person

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

High schools have become obsessed with “million-dollar scholars,” and it’s hurting students.

Across Memphis, students often are pushed by counselors to apply to as many colleges as possible — as many as 100 — all to push students to reach that million-dollar scholarship mark. The more dollars and college acceptance, the better!

I graduated in 2016, and my experience offers a case study.

I’m a pretty well-rounded individual: In high school, I was a finalist in the Let’s Innovate Through Education program and was able to launch SousChef-Memphis, a culinary nonprofit organization. I was a dual-enrollment student and took honors courses. I was committed to community service. I was vice president of my high school organization, Modern Distinctive Ladies. I was on the bowling team, managed the basketball team, and participated in debate forensics and drama.

I was also told by counselors to apply to 100 colleges. I was never told why that number was chosen, but my peers were told the same. We were often pulled out of class to complete these applications, which took away from instructional time — about an hour per day. My high school also ran on an infraction system, and not turning in college applications and other documents led to disciplinary actions.

The quality of those applications only shed a dim light on the student and person that I am. A hundred applications was never my goal. A hundred applications doesn’t measure the capability, intelligence or worth of me as a student. A hundred applications is just ridiculous!

Schools with similar approaches, though, get glowing media coverage. Meanwhile, a lot of that scholarship money is irrelevant, since a single student obviously can only attend one school.

I think that if I had been counseled properly, I would have had a better grasp on my high school-to-college transition. I ultimately chose to leave Memphis to attend another state university on a full scholarship. Looking back, that school was not the best fit for me. I returned to Memphis to attend our local public university.

A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.

I was more than capable of getting back on track, and I did. But not every student can afford to go through what I went through.

High schools need to realize that, while students amassing millions of dollars in scholarships and hundreds of college acceptance letters seems like an accomplishment, the outcome for many students is the total opposite.

Too many students end up not going to a school that is the best fit for them, taking on piles of debt, and dropping out with no workforce experience.

The goal should be that each high school student will graduate having a grasp on their career path (and experience in that field), scholarships to the school of their choice (full rides or little to no debt), and be confident in where they will be spending the next four to six years of their life. Being thorough in the college search and submitting quality applications is what leads to a college that is the best fit for the student, obtaining scholarships, and ultimately graduating.

Here’s what I wish a counselor had told me:

"It is time to start thinking about quality over quantity. Quality counseling. Quality applications. And quality choices about what to do next."Anisah Karim

Try things you like, but don’t overload yourself. Look for summer internships that pay, rather than minimum-wage jobs. Build a network of people who can help you make good decisions about college and work. Research schools with a major you’re interested in, and find out what scholarships they offer. Keep an eye on your GPA and make sure you’re taking the classes you need to graduate. Apply for colleges when applications open and submit the FAFSA form in October.

And most importantly, through all four years of high school, don’t be afraid to ask for help.

It is time to start thinking about quality over quantity. Quality counseling. Quality applications. And quality choices about what to do next.

Anisah Karim is a psychology student at the University of Memphis. She plans to continue her education in speech pathology and otology and eventually start her own private practice. She also plans to launch two new business ventures in the fall and relaunch SousChef in the fall of 2018.