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The road to a high school diploma is changing, but are all graduates prepared?

You probably won’t notice just by watching students walk across the stage in caps and gowns this month, but the road to a high school diploma has changed.

New York State has made a series of changes the past few years that give kids more opportunities to graduate, but also feed criticism that more students will leave high school unprepared.

No longer is graduating as clear-cut as passing five Regents exams. Instead, the state has laid out other paths for students to earn a diploma.

It's still too early to know the full effect of all the new options, but there’s little doubt it will help boost high school graduation rates – which is one important way schools are judged. Last June, the graduation rate exceeded 80 percent statewide.

The vast majority of those students earned Regents diplomas, but a slight uptick in the graduation rate from the prior year was driven by an increase in local diplomas, according to a recent report by The Education Trust-New York. In general, a local diploma requires students to take Regents exams but allows for a lower score on appeal.

The changes have left some to wonder if all students are graduating high school prepared for the future.

“It’s clear there’s a gap between these graduation rates and the number of students ready for the next step,” said Brian Fritsch, deputy executive director for High Achievement New York, a coalition that advocates for high standards in schools. “It seems to me there aren’t enough students graduating who are ready given the remediation rates we see – especially at the community colleges.”

Changes to the state's diploma requirements have been phased in over the last few years, including:

• Instead of requiring all high school students to pass five Regents exams, there is now more flexibility for students to explore the arts, another language or a career and technical education, and have it count toward graduation.

• For some students who fall short on one or two of the Regents exams, they can appeal. That includes the growing numbers of English language learners, or students with disabilities unable to meet a lower passing score.

• The state most recently made it easier for students with disabilities to graduate. Even if they're unable to pass any of the Regents exams, they could still qualify for a diploma as long as they earn a credential that shows they're ready for entry-level employment and the superintendent signs off.

Push for tougher standards

To better understand the conversation, you have to go back more than 20 years.

The landscape is different now than it was in the mid-1990s when Richard Mills, state education commissioner at the time, laid out a plan to phase out the option for a local diploma – which allowed students to graduate with lower scores – as well as the Regents Competency Test, a lower-level exit exam.

Instead, all graduating students would not only need 22 credit hours of course work, but would be required to pass five Regents, a more rigorous exam with origins dating back nearly 150 years.

The plan was met with a lot of “positive energy,” because there was a big emphasis nationally on higher standards and concern the state’s two-tiered graduation system allowed some students to finish high school without a meaningful education, said Robert N. Lowry Jr., deputy director of the state Council of School Superintendents.

But, Lowry said, there also was recognition that some kids still wouldn’t be able to pass the Regents exams, so the roll-out was slow. The state wasn't fully finished implementing the tougher Regents diploma requirements when education leaders began looking at alternative ways to let students earn a diploma.

“We did start to hear of kids who just couldn’t satisfy the demands of a high school diploma,” Lowry said. “Among other things, they couldn’t get into the Armed Forces or take Civil Service tests. I think that was some of the impetus for some of the recent changes.”

The state faced a lot of criticism over the tougher standard and was under pressure from advocacy groups to move away from this “one size fits all” approach to graduation, said Abja Midha, deputy director of The Education Trust–New York, a non-profit that advocates for students of color and low-income.

“I think the idea was to have greater flexibility so kids, who were otherwise ready to graduate, weren’t trapped and end up staying in school an extra year – or dropping out,” Midha said.

New safety nets

These days, students can graduate with a Regents diploma, by passing five Regents exams or using the new pathways option; an Advanced Regents diploma, by passing seven or eight Regents exams; or a local diploma, which in general, requires students to take Regents exams but allows for a lower score on appeal.

Confused?

You’re not the only one.

“It’s just become incredibly complicated, because they’ve been introducing all these safety nets and appeals as safety options,” Midha said. “As a result, it’s become really complicated to keep track.”

But the changes, some say, reflect the acknowledgement that high school should not only be preparing kids for college, but also a career.

Others, though, worry some of these changes are lowering the bar and allowing some kids to graduate when they're not ready.

“That’s part of this whole discussion,” Lowry said, “trying to ensure a high school diploma is meaningful while still recognizing there are different ways to demonstrate your learning.”

Fritsch, the deputy executive director for High Achievement New York, believes updating the standards is about finding "the right balance."

“I’m not 100 percent convinced these changes help with that," he said, "but it’s understandable that families want to see changes.”

Click on a box below to see how graduation requirements have changed.

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