Advocates seek last-minute extension of less rigorous diploma

Tougher graduation requirements almost two decades in coming are putting thousands of city students at risk of not earning a diploma this year.

Advocates are asking the state to give more students more time before fully implementing more stringent graduation requirements, but city officials say educators and students have had plenty of time to prepare.

For the first time, students in New York State will only be able to graduate with a Regents diploma, requiring they receive a 65 or above on at least five Regents exams. In the past, students could graduate with a local diploma, allowing them to receive a 55 on at least five exams. In the 1990s, state officials initiated a change to make requirements for the local diploma increasingly stringent, until it could be phased out. Last year, students were able to receive a local diploma by passing four Regents exams with a 65, and one with a 55.

It’s impossible to know how many students will be affected, but the Department of Education estimates that 10 percent of the city’s class of 2011— almost 8,000 students — received a local diploma.

And although more city students have risen to the challenge of increased standards each year, many worry that a particularly difficult Regents exam, in Global History, will prove an insurmountable obstacle. In February, Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky said the department was concerned that graduation would drop under the new standards.

The Board of Regents recognizes the threat that tougher requirements poses to graduation rates, and is looking at options for multiple pathways to graduation that take into account different abilities and home lives. At a meeting this week, they discussed creating more flexible graduation requirements. For example, students could swap career and technical education credits for Regents credits.

But the Regents’ proposals would not take into effect for several years, so seniors this year who score lower than a 65 have few options.

Students who pass in August this year will be included in this year’s graduation numbers, said Matthew Mittenthal, spokesman for the Department of Education. If they fail for a second time, they can choose to return to school in the fall and retake the Regents in January.

General education students also have a limited opportunity to earn a local diploma by passing three of the five Regents exams with a 65 or better, and by successfully appealing a score of 62-64 on the remaining two examinations, said Jonathan Burman, a State Education Department spokesman.

The students most at risk of falling short of Regents diploma requirements are poor students of color. Only 28 percent of black students and 26 percent of Latino students achieve a Regents diploma in four years, according to a 2009 report from the Coalition for Educational Justice.

But Mittenthal said the five-year phase-out of the local diploma — adding a Regents exam requirement each year — has prepared the city for its elimination, and the state first announced the phase-out in 1996. Philip Weinberg, the principal of the High School of Telecommunication Arts and Technology in Brooklyn, said educators have had time to prepare students.

“We have always known that the requirements were slated to change, and we would be derelict in our duty if we weren’t preparing the students accordingly,” he said.

But advocates lobbying against the elimination say in-school supports for students did not increase with standards.

“If you are going to raise standards, you also have to raise the quality of institutions,” said Christian Villenas, policy analyst for Advocates for Children.As part of the Coalition for Multiple Pathways to Graduation, Advocates for Children  is circulating a petition to postpone the elimination of the local diploma. The organization has been a leader in lobbying the state to postpone the elimination until other pathways to graduation are in place

Villenas suggested two ways to deal with the problem in the less than five weeks until graduation. Two bills are currently in the State Senate that would postpone the elimination, including one by the chair of the Senator John Flanagan, chair of the education committee. And the Board of Regents can change requirements at any time.

Villenas said he worries that seniors who fall short in June will not bother to retake the tests in August, or will be so focused on the Regents during the summer, that they will not be able to prepare themselves for college or careers.

Special education students can still graduate with a local diploma. But this, too, poses a problem for advocates.

“By keeping the local diploma for students with just disabilities, in essence you’re creating a second class of students,” Villenas said.