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Eye on the News

Marc Epstein
A Coming Diploma Drought?
New York high schools are setting themselves up for plunging graduation rates.
15 December 2009

Starting this academic year, all graduating high school students in New York are expected to receive a regular “Regents” diploma, which once had the distinction of being the most rigorous diploma that the state conferred. It was generally reserved for college-bound students; those not pursuing higher education received a “general” diploma. Depending on the municipality, and with state approval, commercial and vocational diplomas were also awarded. Schools offered commercial diplomas, for instance, to students interested in secretarial work, bookkeeping, or other trades not necessarily requiring a college education.

But responding to criticism, common since the days of the civil rights movement, that directing minority students toward vocations rather than college was racially biased—because all minority students should be expected to do college work—reformers abolished those diploma distinctions and allowed such courses of study, which many minority students took advantage of, to wither away. The state’s new “one size fits all” diploma standard means that special-education students must pass the same English and history Regents as students attending Stuyvesant High. It also means that either the Regents exams have to be altered or the grading requirements adjusted to avoid a huge drop-off in passing scores. And that is precisely what has happened, as I and others have pointed out repeatedly.

Meryl Tisch, the new Regents chancellor, and David Steiner, the state commissioner of education, who has also recently assumed his post, have acknowledged that the state’s testing system needs fixing across the board, from the high school Regents exams to the state’s math and English tests for fourth- and eighth-grade students. If Steiner and Tisch have their way and the state’s Regents tests become more rigorous, they’ll face the likelihood that the state’s graduation rates will drop dramatically, since students won’t graduate unless they pass all five of the Regents exams offered in math, English, science, and social studies (two exams).

They can avoid that scenario by revisiting the state’s destructive “one size fits all” diploma policy and reinstating the old “differential diploma” system. But doing so would require some political courage, a quality always in short supply. Tisch and Steiner would have to challenge the now-conventional bias in favor of routing all kids toward a college diploma of one kind or another.

The dirty word no one wants to utter is “tracking.” Any attempt to steer kids toward a career route that doesn’t award a college degree is still broadly considered racially biased, though several presidents, including the current one, have conceded that college isn’t for everyone. Bill Clinton’s first budget asked Congress to support a national school-to-work transition program, including youth apprenticeships, and his School to Work Opportunities Act passed in 1994 with strong bipartisan support. It provided funding to help states, among other things, “develop a skills certification system for high school graduates.” President Obama has wisely pushed an initiative to increase funding for our community colleges, which have increasingly taken on the task of teaching vocational and technical skills once offered at the high school level. In school systems like New York’s, most course offerings in hands-on shop classes were eliminated over 20 years ago. The shops were torn out and turned into academic classrooms.

There was a time when our teachers believed that being educated included learning manual skills—and that there were many dignified and useful ways of making a living. If Tisch and Steiner have any chance of setting things straight, they will need to address not just the testing regime, but the structure and purpose of diplomas—and that means addressing, in a broader sense, the question of why kids are in school in the first place. Bringing back differential diplomas will stave off a public-relations disaster for school authorities. More importantly, it will serve the needs of New York’s students.

Marc Epstein teaches history at Jamaica High School. He was a contributor to A Consumer’s Guide to High School History Textbooks (Thomas B. Fordham Institute) and reviewed Florida’s social studies standards for the Albert Shanker Institute.

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