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Or more specifically – what is the value of a  New York State high school diploma in the era of No Child Left Behind?

When a child with a disability enters school the IDEA law (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) requires that the student receive an individual education plan (IEP). In the document there has been a check off for indicating if the student is on a track to earn a high school diploma.  Since my daughter was in kindergarten I insisted each year that the IEP indicate that she was going to earn a diploma (the alternative would be that without the goal of a diploma the academics would not need to be rigorous and expectations of achievement would be lower.)  The non-diploma option is often referred to as an IEP “diploma” which means the student achieved there personal goals and receives a certificate.

This fall, after my daughter started 9th grade (and we had her Individual Education Plan – IEP – in place) I learned that she and many of her cohorts would likely not be able to earn a high school diploma – due to a change instituted by the NY Stated Department of Education.

In NY, students take exit exams called “Regents” (the school system is overseen by a board of regents) and need to pass at least 5 of these exams in order to earn a high school diploma.  Passing is 65 or above.  For students with disabilities there had been an alternative exam as a back up called the Regents Competency Test (RCT).

Because the curriculum changed over the years – many special education students were now enrolled in modified classes but taught the same content as the general education curriculum – the Board of Regents determined that these alternative tests, the RCTs, were no longer relevant so they eliminated them.  Beginning with this year’s 9th graders, all students must take the very rigorous Regents exams.  Students with IEPs are given the safety net of passing with a 55 or better – but still in 5 subjects.  If you don’t pass all 5 you don’t get a diploma – no matter how hard you worked for 12 years.

The chances of my daughter getting a 55 in the Regents algebra and geometry tests are slim to none (compared with her chances of getting a 55 in English, Global History, US History, and Biology – slim to some).

That is why my daughter’s opportunity to earn a high school diploma has been stolen from her.

Some of you with kids with IEPs have asked me directly or shook your head and wondered why I have been so focused on a diploma.  Many have said that a diploma does not prepare a student for life after high school if the student is not planning to attend college, and the single curriculum is only geared towards preparing students for college.    I agree, especially since there are no vocational tracks and courses any longer.  They have been eliminated because the Regents must believe that the only worthwhile life course requires college.  (I wonder if they think plumbers, hair stylists, chefs and auto mechanics needed college to pursue their professions).

Besides deserving a diploma for showing up every day and putting in your best effort in spite of all the challenges – learning, social and emotional – that a student with a disability has, a diploma is required for almost any job, and is required for any post secondary education – even in a specialty area.

In middle school Isabelle attended the mainstream classes but the course content was modified and pre and post taught to her in a way she learned best.  She was engaged and she also participated in projects with the “typical” students.

Now in high school she attends classed called “modified” where the teacher presents the same curriculum as the general ed class but simplified to the bare essence.  There is so much focus on passing the Regents exams that the teachers spend much of the class teaching how to take the test.  So there is no teaching based on how the student learns the content best, it is all about learning how to pass the test.

Given this: that there is less focus on getting understanding of some subset of the content and making it personally relevant and useful, and teaching in a way that is multi-sensory – I question what is the point?
I wanted to find out how many other parents of 9th graders were concerned about the loss of the RCT as an option so I created an online survey and here is a summary of results .

Of those responders who have children in 9th grade now…..

Enrollment in Regents level classes:
•    43% of 9th graders are enrolled in all Regents level classes
•    24% are in some Regents classes
•    33% are in none

Importance of a diploma:
•    90% of parents of 9th graders believed that a high school diploma is very important and necessary

Likelihood of passing Regents exams:
•    14 % of parents believe their child could pass ALL of the Regents tests
•    69% believe they could pass some
•    88% of responders believe that their student could NOT pass Algebra
•    70% believe they could NOT pass Geometry
•    the other subjects that could not pass range from 29% to 59%

•    Only 52% of parents of 9th graders were aware that RCTs were not an option for their student
•    43% of parents of 9th graders were not aware that their child had to get 55 or above on all  5 Regents tests to get a high school diploma
•    71% of parents of 9th graders reported : I am concerned and would take action to make sure there is an alternate assessment for 9th graders and beyond

Adult safety net
Only 33 % of parents of 9th graders though their child would qualify for OPWDD (Office of People with Developmental Disabilities) which provides Medicaid services

you can check out the survey here: Marjorie’s high school diploma survey

Besides the quantitative data, I also collected qualitative responses:  here are some responder comments copied directly from the survey.

Are you aware that if your student – who is currently in 9th grade or below – does not pass all 5 Regents exams they will not receive a high school diploma (students with IEPs can get 55 or above)

grossly unfair

How dare you deny lesser abled people the right to achieve success and to receive the recognition of a diploma! (A veteran 37-year teacher with a multiply handicapped 9th grader)

Yes and is why we are contemplating moving out of state before my son graduates from high school.

I plan on sending my son to private school in ct beginning with 9th grade-they don’t have regents there

Not sure why this was changed, but my son just took RCT for Math for the 2nd time this wk & finally passed. Not sure what could be done if it weren’t available to him.

How will my child get a job?

Responder comments:
How important is obtaining a high school diploma to you for your child?

Having an IEP diploma is essentially useless.

employment options will be significantly hindered without it.

we would be very proud of him! He would be proud too!

I believe there may be some empolyers who discriminate on the basis of not receive a diploma even though such discrimination may not be lawful.

my child is severly disabled but I am very concerned for those children that are high functioning but would have trouble passing some of the Regents.

Where does anyone expect any kid to go?? They are limiting their possibilities all based on tests & not measuring their knowledge any other way therefore limiting their possibilities in life.


I am very disturbed by this because various vocational options which my child could potentially do have a high school diploma as a pre-requisite.

Responder comments:
How concerned are you that there is no alternative assessment to the Regents exams for students with IEPs to be able to earn a high school diploma, and what would you do?

May need to look at private school.

I worry about the students who will not have the RCT exams to assist them in earning a high school diploma; however, my son will have graduated by that time and I do not have the time or energy to take any action on behalf of future students.

I will be writing the Regents about this. I am very disappointed that the Regents solution is that the kids just keep taking Regents over and over. I am disappointed that this was on the table for 10 years but they have not come up with alternative. If this was the public sector, someone would have been fired for this lack of planning.

my son is in 6th grade so i am not too too concerned right now. will be more concerned next year and year after.

If this survey is accurate in stating that there in NO diploma available for them if they don’t pass the regents…I will take action

I currently have my child in private school inorder to essure a HS diploma

Although the lowering of the grade to 55 and above is helpful to many students it doesn’t solve the whole problem.

I would hope that an alternate diploma would be an option for ALL students, not just those with IEP’s.

This change takes a lot of students that are on the brink of emergent learning and makes it choices for High School, near impossible. It’s either regents track or life skills. The anxiety of the students and the fact that some are learning well below grade level is not taken into account. If you are learning anywhere from a 3-5 grade level in 8th grade what choices are available? Can a student working on a 3rd grade math test pass the regents, at any level? What health or mental health problems will be caused by this lack of providing education without the pressure of testing. A test they will more then likely never be able to pass.

Unfortunately, my son wouldn’t be able to take regents, I do believe though if my son was higher academically it would be a concern for me.

A HS Diploma should be the goal of every student. Alternate Assessment, though not implemented very well, was set up to better assess the goals and progress of lower functioning students.The Alt Assessment should continue to lead to a High School Diploma. Change the wording on the diploma to reflect the IEP goals were met and it is NOT a Regent Diploma, but do not further stigmatize our students in special education by not valuing their years in school.

There should be another path available for students with IEPs to obtain Local HS diplomas. The IEP diploma is worthless. It is unfair to encourage students (and parents) to be in mainstream classes and then make it impossible for them to succeed.

I am considering a move out of NY to a state that does not have such requirements.

For a young adult to enter a general training or certificate program, they need to have a diploma. Without this credentail, we are shutting the door to all career opportunities for young adults in the future.

This is now getting some attention because why?  MONEY.  IDEA says a student with a disability can stay in school until she earns a diploma or turns 21.  That means up to 3 more years of public funded education.  LoHud just published an article about this 

What would you do if your child could not earn a high school diploma?