test trap

Tougher diploma rules leave some students in graduation limbo

Philip Yeung with his daughter, Tiffany, who has tried to pass a single Regents exam 10 times since the state raised the minimum pass score.
Philip Yeung with his daughter, Tiffany, who has tried to pass a single Regents exam 10 times since the state raised the minimum pass score.

If Jessica Fuentes had better luck with timing, she might be in college now.

But because she was a high school senior in 2012, the year the state raised the minimum exam scores required to graduate, she missed the new cutoff score on a few tests, failed to receive a diploma, and withdrew from the college she had planned to attend.

Today, after many unsuccessful attempts to pass the tests, she is juggling three jobs while studying for a high school equivalency certificate.

“I did four years of high school,” said Fuentes, 20. “What a waste of my time.”

Fuentes is one of an untold number of city students ensnared by the state’s efforts to raise graduation standards. Those efforts, meant to ensure that high school graduates are prepared for college, have in some cases stranded students in graduation limbo, where because a single test score is a few points too low, they must set aside plans for work and college to take taxpayer-funded test-prep classes.

Betty Rosa, a member of the state Board of Regents that set the higher standards, said the change was never meant to keep otherwise solid students from graduating due to a few points on a test.

“I think there are arguments for rigor,” Rosa said. “But at the same time, as we move through these issues, we really have to take into account what are the unintended consequences.”

Starting last year, students must pass five state Regents exams with grades of 65 or higher. Previously, students could earn a 55 or higher on some of the tests and still graduate, but with a so-called local diploma. That option now is only available to students with disabilities or ones who successfully appeal their scores.

Fuentes hit the old standard but not the new one on each of the exams. Another student from her senior class at Francis Lewis High School in Queens has taken a single Regents exam 11 times without passing — including every opportunity since missing her graduation last year. Under the old cutoff score, she, too, would have passed the test.

The student, Tiffany, asked that her last name be withheld so that potential employers and others would not be able to discover her struggle to graduate.

She said she has attended afternoon and weekend Regents-prep sessions, studied with a private tutor, taken online courses and watched instructional YouTube videos — all in the hopes of passing the global history and geography exam.

Meanwhile, she has had to pause her plans of attending college and becoming a nurse.

“These poor kids are being held back and their lives are on hold because they can’t get this diploma,” said Cristina Cotignola, a Francis Lewis guidance counselor. “As an educator, I hate this rule.”

Neither the state nor city education department could say how many students were blocked from graduating last year after falling on the wrong side of the new cutoff line.

The city’s four-year graduation rate declined by half a point last year: from 60.9 percent to 60.4 percent — a modest dip, but the first real decrease under Mayor Bloomberg. (The city also toughened how Regents exams are scored and limited makeup work last year for the first time.)

Abja Midha, project director for the nonprofit Advocates for Children, said the full impact of the rule change would not become clear for another year or so, when some students who narrowly missed the score cutoff stop trying to earn their diplomas and turn instead to GED classes or work — a risky route that could limit college choices and future wages.

The group estimates that statewide about 22 percent of each senior class — or some 48,000 students — might not graduate high school for a variety of reasons, from missing class credits to dropping out. A small subset of those students includes ones who met most graduation requirements, but scored too low on one or more Regents exams.

“Those are students who now do not have access to college or other careers,” Midha said.

Students who fail the state tests can retake them as many times as they like. To boost their odds of passing, they can attend city-funded Regents-prep classes until they turn 21.

At Francis Lewis, review sessions leading up to the test are available for the 20 or so students that failed exams last year due to the higher cutoff score. Tiffany, for one, returned last school year for global history tutoring every afternoon and five hours each Saturday morning — but still she couldn’t pass the test.

The global history exam — which covers several millennia of world history taught over two school years — is the most-failed Regents test. The state has considered overhauling the exam so that it would cover less content.

Tiffany’s father, Philip Yeung, argues that it makes little sense for the state to prevent Tiffany, a would-be nurse, from graduating high school on account of a history exam. It also seems unwise for the city to pour resources into her for an extra year or more also on account of a single test, Yeung added.

“I’d rather see them give that time and effort to a student that’s failing, who really needs it,” he said.

Students who come within three points of passing a Regents exam and meet several other criteria, including good attendance and passing grades, can appeal their scores on up to two tests. If a school-based appeal committee signs off, the students receive diplomas.

Neither Fuentes nor Tiffany has earned at least a 62 on the global history exam and so neither can appeal her score.

The Coalition for Multiple Pathways to a Diploma, which includes Advocates for Children, has called on the state to add non-test assessments — such as final projects or portfolios — as graduation options. It also urged the state to expand the number of tests and range of scores subject to appeal, and better publicize that process.

In the meantime, some students remain stuck.

Tiffany still exchanges text messages with her guidance counselor about retaking the Regents exam, but she has lost touch with most of her classmates who earned diplomas and moved on.

Now, after more than a year of fruitless tutoring and retesting, Tiffany has decided to start studying for her GED.

“What else can I do?” she said. “I’ve basically done everything I can, but nothing’s working.”

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede