[Editor’s Note: James DeLorenzo, assistant commissioner at the New York State Education Department’s Office of Special Education, responded post-publication to multiple Press requests made to the department for clarification about specific points of its new diploma rules during the reporting of this story. His Letter To The Editor is published below in full. Scroll to read.]

As Long Island high school seniors celebrated earning their diplomas last month, many anxious parents and educators were waiting to see how new education policy changes may affect graduation rates and students with learning disabilities.

This year marked the first class to graduate since the New York State Education Department started to phase out so-called local diplomas four years ago, leaving the more stringent Regents Diploma as the minimum graduation requirement for most students—special education and general education students alike. It’s also the first year that students could receive the new Career Development and Occupational Studies (CDOS) Certification, which prepares special education pupils for the workforce but isn’t the equivalent of a diploma. Some lawmakers are calling for state education leaders to reconsider the changes.

“This makes it incredibly difficult for students with learning and other disabilities to achieve a recognized diploma if they cannot succeed in all required Regents exams,” wrote Assemb. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach) to the state education department in a letter signed by 100 fellow elected representatives. “Specifically, because most colleges require a diploma…many of our students will be shut out from attending college. That is a tragedy.”

LI’s graduation rate stands at 88.5 percent, outpacing the statewide rate of nearly 77 percent and the national rate of 81 percent, according to the state and federal education departments. Many school districts on the Island have seen their graduation rates rise, although some saw decreases, which local officials blamed on budget cuts that led to some students not meeting requirements.

“[The CDOS] should not count toward graduation rates, but we’ll see what the state will do,” said Carol Burris, retiring principal of South Side High School in Rockville Centre. “It’s not a graduation credential. It’s not a diploma. Would it surprise me if the state tries to [count it]? No.”

But many parents—especially those with children in special education programs—worry that the elimination of the non-Regents local diploma will adversely affect their kids’ lives. Previously, special education students who couldn’t meet the Regents Diploma requirements could receive a local diploma if they passed a Regents Competency Test or scored between 55 and 64 on the Regents exams.

Aside from local diplomas, Regents and Advanced Regents diplomas have been available to students with disabilities as well as general education students who score high enough on five exams: English, math, history and science, as well as one additional exam, with foreign language the preferred option. The alternate local diplomas had been available to special education students with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or section 504 Accommodation Plan, which does not classify a pupil with learning disabilities as a special education student.

Advocates and interested parents have joined lawmakers in urging state education leaders to reverse course.

“Without the local diploma at minimum, a child like my son, Brandon, will not be eligible to enroll in a community college or a trade school of his choice,” said Betty Pilnik, a parent from Oceanside. “This is too high a price to pay for such a hard-working student. Not only does this thwart my child from continuing his post-secondary education, but it even prevents him from taking any entry-level civil service exams.”

Once the Class of 2015’s special education students graduate, local diplomas are history, but there are a few catches. Some of those students may continue in high school until they turn 21 to finish their requirements. And the state Board of Regents said that local diplomas are still available through an appeals process, but would not comment on what they would allow for a successful appeal.

As for IEP students acquiring CDOS credentials, they’re required to fulfill a career plan, complete 216 hours of study in Career and Technical Education coursework, do 54 hours of work-based learning and fill out their employability profile, among other criteria. But, since the CDOS is not a diploma, students applying to jobs that require a high school diploma must at least earn a High School Equivalency Diploma. Curiously, the new Skills and Achievement Commencement Credential, which replaced the since-phased-out IEP diploma, is also considered a credential and not a diploma, but can reportedly be regarded as the equivalent of a diploma on job applications.

The worry, say some parents and advocates, is that students will become frustrated with the new CDOS requirements and drop out of high school before they complete them.

“It’s very sad that [CDOS students] won’t be able to get a government job; they won’t even be able to go into the military,” said Jennifer Keisner, president of Longwood’s Special Education Parent Teacher Association. “These kids work very hard–as hard as they can–and to see that they’re not going to get anywhere will cause them to just give up.”

When the Class of 2015’s graduation rate is calculated, the report will be published in December at data.nysed.gov.

Response from James DeLorenzo, assistant commissioner at the New York State Education Department’s Office of Special Education:

To the Editor –

I am writing in response to your recent article, “How Will New Diploma Rules Affect Long Island Special Education Students, Graduation Rates?” I’d like to take this opportunity to clarify some of the points made in the article. This information is critically important to students with disabilities and their families – and they deserve to understand the options that are available to them.

First, the article states that “once the class of 2015 graduate, local diplomas are history.” In fact, to date, the Regents have approved two options for students with disabilities to graduate with a local diploma when their disability precludes them from passing Regents exams at a score of 65 or higher. One option allows students with disabilities to graduate with a local diploma when they earn between a 55 and 64 on one or more Regents exams required for graduation (the “low pass” option). The other “safety net” option allows students with disabilities to earn a local diploma when they score between 45-54 on one or more of the five required Regents exams (other than the ELA or mathematics exam) if they can offset that score with a score of 65 or higher on another required Regents exam (provided that the student has earned a score of at least 55 on both the ELA and mathematics exams).

The article also claims that, “since the CDOS is not a diploma, students applying to jobs that require a high school diploma must at least earn a High School Equivalency Diploma.” In fact, the CDOS credential was never intended to be a substitute for a regular high school diploma. The State Education Department requires that schools provide meaningful access to instruction to ensure that most students with disabilities graduate with a regular high school diploma. For these students, the Credential would be a supplement to a regular high school diploma. For those students who cannot meet the academic standards to earn a local or Regents diploma, the CDOS credential could be awarded as that student’s exiting award at the time of graduation.

Finally, the article states that the “Skills and Achievement Commencement Credential… is also considered a credential and not a diploma, but can reportedly be regarded as the equivalent of a diploma on job application.” The Skills and Achievement Commencement Credential is intended only for students with severe disabilities. This credential must be accompanied by documentation of the student’s skills and strengths and levels of independence in academic, career development and foundation skills needed for post school living, further education, training and working. It cannot be regarded as the equivalent of a regular high school diploma on job applications.

James DeLorenzo
Assistant Commissioner
Office of Special Education
NYS Education Department

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