Equal Opportunity: Raising the Bar for Students with Disabilities

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On a Friday afternoon in April, Amanda Gambacorta was in search of answers. She had an 18-year-old student with special needs who had earned only 15 credits in his four years at Herbert H. Lehman High School, a struggling school in the Tremont section of the Bronx. He was far from the 44 credits required for graduation and he had failed all of the state-required Regent exams.

“I’m just trying to figure out what to do with this kid,” Gambacorta said.

Gambacorta debated whether there was a point to keep pushing him towards a regular diploma, an ambitious feat that would require him to earn 29 credits in the three years left before he ages out of the system at 21. She could also urge him to drop out and pursue a state-funded trade program, which would give him a chance to learn a skill and earn his GED down the road. The final option would be to steer him to an Individualized Education Program (IEP) diploma, a largely symbolic certificate for students with special needs who are unable to pass the needed requirements for graduation.

But starting next year, the IEP diploma will no longer be an option. The state will cease to issue them in a bid to push students with disabilities to earn a regular diploma, which policymakers believe will result in more opportunities and better outcomes. At that point, Gambacorta’s student would have to try to earn all the necessary credits for a diploma before his time runs out. 

“Now that right there speaks to this question: what do you do with this kid that has 15 credits?” said Susan M. Pedretti, the lead special education teacher at Lehman. “Does he take his IEP diploma while it’s still available or do you keep pushing towards a regular diploma? This is what we’re struggling with right now.” Ultimately, Gambarcorta’s student chose to keep striving towards a regular diploma in hopes that he can beat the odds.

This diploma change is part of the city’s ambitious special education reforms aimed at equalizing  standards, opportunities and outcomes for students with special needs. Although four-year graduation rates for students with special needs increased from 17 percent to 31 percent between 2005 and 2010, only one-third were earning the standard diploma that requires them to pass five state-mandated Regent exams with a minimum score of 65. Most others graduated with the help of more lenient requirements allowing students to earn the less rigorous local diploma by either scoring at least 55 on the Regents or passing the Regents Competency Tests (RCTs), a set of modified exams designed for students with disabilities. About 20 to 30 percent of graduating special education students left high school with an IEP diploma, which is accepted by some employers, but not acknowledged by colleges or the military.

The issue, according to policymakers, is that students with special needs are often held to lower standards than their peers. In a 2010 memo, the New York State Education Department claimed that most students with disabilities are capable of earning a regular diploma yet often leave high school with an IEP certificate. Policymakers argue this disadvantages students with special needs because the IEP diploma — although recognized by some employers — limits graduates by excluding them from well-paying jobs, college education and military service.

The response was to eliminate “safety net” graduation provisions like the IEP diploma and the RCTs in a bid to raise the standards and push all students towards meeting regular graduation requirements. Students with disabilities will still be allowed to get a local diploma but they will have to pass the regular Regents with a modified minimum score of 55 on four exams and a 45 on the fifth.

In a letter to parents last June, Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott hailed special education reform as a move towards ensuring that all graduates are adequately prepared for colleges and careers.

“Students with disabilities will continue to be provided with the services they need as stated in their Individualized Education Programs, and at the same time they will have increased access to the same curriculum and be challenged to reach the same high expectations as their non-disabled peers,” Walcott wrote.

The changes have garnered mixed reactions among educators at Lehman, according to Pedretti. Traditionally, the IEP diploma has been a valuable option for struggling students unlikely to complete graduation requirements by the time they hit 21. But it has always been treated as a last resort at Lehman, a large, comprehensive school where 23 percent of its 2,890 students have special needs compared to an average of 14 percent citywide.

Whenever possible, Lehman special education teachers try to help their students achieve a regular diploma even if it takes a few extra years, a fact that has contributed to the school’s low graduation rates in recent years. Last year, the school graduated just half of its seniors in four years, which placed it in the bottom two percent of schools citywide.

“Our numbers were hurting Lehman,” said Pedretti, who has taught at the school since 1988. “But that was always the way we did it because it was better to let the student take six years but leave with a high school diploma than in four years have them leave with an IEP diploma. Because what is that? It’s an attendance certificate.”

The phase out of the Regents Competency Test (RCT), on the other hand, has been more controversial amid educators. Sean Murray, who has been teaching special education at Lehman for nine years, believes eliminating the test will severely hurt students with special needs who have reading difficulties. According to Murray, the main difference between the two tests is their wording, which makes the RCTs more digestible for students with special needs who do not read at the level required to pass the Regents.

“If you look at the questions on the two tests, the Regents are designed for kids who are reading at a higher level and the RCT is designed for kids who are reading at a lower level,” Murray said, adding many students will still struggle with the Regents because of this despite the lowered passing requirements.

Kam Gonzalez, who has taught at Lehman for 11 years, is also concerned about the elimination of the RCTs because she sees the tests as an important provision for students who struggle despite their best efforts. She has seen students who will not pass the standardized Regents because of their disability, no matter how hard they try.

“I never taught to the RCTs but I liked having that little bit of cushion for those students who really try so hard to pass the Regents but, by a couple of points, they can’t and they’re taking it over and over again,” Gonzalez said. “I want them to shoot high but it’s nice to still have that safety net. That’s why they call it a ‘safety net.’ ”

While many teachers like Gonzalez are sad to see the RCTs go, some advocates argue that their elimination could actually be a good thing. Maggie Moroff, special education coordinator at Advocates for Children of New York, an education rights group that represents low income and special needs students, said the modified tests were not as useful as many like to believe. In fact, requiring special education students to take the regular Regents but allowing them to score slightly lower might actually be beneficial for many, according to Moroff.

“The RCTs in and of themselves weren’t really the answer to everything anyway,” she said. “The problem with the RCTs was that there were no study materials for them. “We’ve had a lot of students and parents that were interested in them but it was actually harder to study for the RCTs in a way than it was for the Regents because there was nothing out there to help students.”

While the changing graduation requirements are intended to level the playing field for students with special needs, Mark Alter, a professor of educational psychology at New York University, believes they will actually further disadvantage students with special needs. According to Alter, the problem is that the reform policies push students to graduate with college-level diplomas by lowering passing standards, which fails to prepare them for the real world.

“So long as you have requirements that are set to the passing of the Regents academic criteria, you’re not going to level the playing field,” Alter said. “It’s a one-size-fits-all model. I think kids need to be prepared for making a transition to competitive employment and I don’t think this diploma will do that.”

Alter argues that the drive for college readiness for all students, which has been a major factor behind the reform of graduation requirements, has meant that students with special needs who may not succeed academically but would flourish in vocational education no longer have that option.

“Say a kid needs vocational training — he wants to become a plumber, an electrician, he wants to become a carpenter, wants to become a chef, he wants to learn a trade. Please tell me where they go in the City of New York,” Alter said.

Gonzalez also questions whether steering all of her students towards college is the right approach. In her classroom, she often oversees students with special needs who are not college material but could easily succeed in a less academic environment. Yet the curriculum requires that she prepare them for college, which many of them will never attend.

“I feel some students are not going to go to college. Some students, they can’t deal with college. Everyone shouldn’t be pushed into a tract for one thing,” she said. “Now we are training these kids to go out and do what? They’re not going to college. Then what are they going to do?”

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