Officials mull opening up diploma options for special-needs students


After being pressured by a group of Long Island parents, state education officials are considering to review the options available to students who aren’t able to earn a Regents diploma, but who have otherwise demonstrated their academic competence.

The parents’ concerns centered on the Career Development and Occupational Studies Commencement Credential, which was approved by the New York State Board of Regents in 2013 as an alternative to a diploma for those with special needs. But many students who receive a CDOS find that employers have never heard of it, according to Roger Tilles, Long Island’s Board of Regents representative, which makes it almost impossible to obtain even retail or manual labor employment.

“When we voted to put CDOS in, it was supposed to take the place of a diploma,” Tilles said, “but the word didn’t get out to employers, schools [and] the military.”

Maryanne Pedersen, a Rockville Centre parent, said that the only problem with the CDOS is that it’s missing the word “diploma.” “It’s a certificate,” she said. “Employers don’t understand what the CDOS is [and] it closes doors. These kids are living at home, they have no hope for employment and eventually they end up on public assistance. There’s nothing for them.”

“What’s going to be the outcome for these students?” asked Liz Mullen, another Rockville Centre mother with two children with special needs.

One of her children, Bailey, who is entering 10th grade, has dyslexia. Bailey said that the Regents testing at times could be emotionally draining. “Me and my friends, we prep ourselves a lot, but I’ve seen some of them walk out of the tests crying,” Bailey said. “And these are like the tough kids.”

The test preparation takes a financial toll on parents too. Mullen estimated that she spent about $4,000 on one child’s preparation for two regents exams. Next year, Bailey would take three more, and the year after that, the SAT.

Mullen went up to Albany with about 30 other parents on July 18 to protest and advocate for their children at the Regents. They were joined by students who according to Mullen, should have gotten diplomas, but didn’t. “We were able to talk to [Board of Regents Chancellor Betty] Rosa and Tilles about how CDOS isn’t really a viable option.”

Their presence seems to have sparked some movement on the issue.

Chalkbeat, an education news non-profit, reported that MaryEllen Elia, the state commissioner of education, said in a conversation with the Board of Regents: “I think what we need to look at is the opportunity of saying … ‘Can the completion of the CDOS sequence, be an appropriate end to receiving a local diploma?’”

According to Newsday, Rosa told the group of parents, “Tomorrow, we are absolutely starting discussion of the diploma issue.”

Currently, students must earn 22 credits in the required disciplines and pass four Regents examinations — in math, English, science and social studies — as part of the “4 + 1 Pathway.” Last year, the Board of Regents approved that the CDOS could take the place of a fifth assessment for any student.

The possibility of allowing the CDOS credential itself — earned after extensive vocational coursework and job-shadowing, or by passing a work-readiness exam — to be the key to a local diploma would drastically change the current scope of state graduation requirements.

Tilles told the Herald that he and Rosa are the biggest proponents of a change that he noted would “beef up” the CDOS, potentially by rewarding a local diploma, rather than a certificate, to students who complete CDOS requirements. Local diplomas haven’t been the norm “since at least 2005” which is when Tilles became a board member. The original intent of the Regents tests, he explained, was to enable policy officials to compare schools.

Since then, the state education department has been taking steps to expand diploma options for students. Last year, they created the superintendent’s waiver, which allowed superintendents to award local diplomas to students who cannot get Regents diplomas, but who demonstrate their competency in other ways, by sticking to individualized education plans designed in conjunction with parents, teachers, and administrators. More than 800 students received local diplomas last school year under this new program, Tilles said.

In responding to concerns that some have expressed about lowering standards, and “watering down” the value of a diploma, Tilles said it would only be a problem, if the CDOS didn’t require demonstrating a certain level of competency.

But he said he had a more pressing concern. “I want to make sure districts don’t track kids into the CDOS who should be pushed into attempting the Regents diploma.”

It will take more than discussion to move forward with the reform that some parents are asking for, according to Tilles, who said it would require an action by the board. He expects the issue to be put on the agenda by September or October, and that if it isn’t met with too much opposition, he hopes that it will be passed in time to benefit students graduating in 2018.

Other officials at the state education department had not responded to the Herald’s request for comment at press time.