State eases graduation requirements for new immigrants

by Geoff Decker on January 13, 2015 9:12 pmBrooklyn International High School students perform a song using an instrument they made from a clock.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Brooklyn International High School students perform a song using an instrument they made from a clock.

Students who arrive in the U.S. during high school and are still learning English could now find it slightly easier to earn a diploma, thanks to a new change to state graduation requirements.

In a nod to the struggles that some English language learners have faced in meeting the state’s more demanding diploma standards in recent years, the Board of Regents voted Monday to make those students eligible for a diploma if they score a 55 on the English Regents exam, down from a 62.

The move has plenty of strings attached, including an appeal process. Students will only be eligible if they arrived in the U.S. as a high schooler during or after the 2010-11 school year, score a 65 or higher on at least three other Regents exams, have a 95 percent attendance rate, and have gotten approval from a teacher or school official.

But the change is one way policymakers are moving to reverse the downward trend for English language learners’ graduation rates, which have fallen continuously since the state adopted more stringent requirements for graduation in 2012. The new requirements phased out a less rigorous diploma that allowed students to graduate with scores of 55 or higher on the exams.

Between 2010 and 2014, four-year graduation rates for the city’s English language learners fell from 41.5 percent to 32.5 percent, even as overall graduation rates rose. English language learners are also more than twice as likely as other students to drop out, according to state figures.

More than 45,000 New York City high school students were classified as English language learners two years ago, according to the city education department, but the number of students who arrived during high school was not immediately available. That number has likely grown in the last year as unaccompanied minors have fled violence and extreme poverty in central and South America.

Claire Sylvan, executive director of Internationals Network for Public Schools, which exclusively serves students who move to the U.S. with limited or no English language skills, praised the change, but had asked officials to make some additional changes. She wanted to broaden the change to include students who arrived in the U.S. as eighth graders and to allow for some flexibility around attendance requirements for students who miss school because they are attending immigration court.

“It was a good decision by the Regents that recognizes the particular challenge that ELLs face,” Sylvan said.

The state is also requiring districts to improve bilingual services and to mandate more training for student teachers, among other changes it’s making to bolster education for English language learners.