Multiple Pathways to Graduation By Zach Garafalo, Assistant Director, YOUTH POWER!

ZG professional headshot

The New York State Independent Living Council (NYSILC) recently released its 2014 Public Policy Agenda. The framework for the agenda is guided by feedback received from the Statewide Needs Assessment conducted in 2012.

Of particular concern for all young people – and specifically students with disabilities, young English Language Learners (ELL) and other vulnerable school-aged populations – are the unnecessary obstacles to obtaining a high school diploma.

The allure of the American public education system is its guarantee of a free and appropriate public education that prepares students to be college and career ready. An American education should position students to be informed participants in civil society and active contributors to the globalized economy.

Unfortunately, the allure is superficial. New York is failing its most vulnerable students. In New York State, one in four students will not graduate within four years. For at-risk students, the outlook is considerably more desolate. Traditionally disadvantaged populations such as Black (58.1%), Hispanic (57.8%), students with disabilities (44.7%), English Language Learners (34.3%) and economically disadvantaged students complete high school within four years at significantly lower rates than their non-identified peers .

Let me be clear. In no way are we advocating lower standards. We want our schools and teachers to be among the most effective in the country, our students well equipped to take on college, work and life, and a meaningful diploma that embodies the ideals of the Empire State. We can fulfill the promise of all that is New York while creating opportunities for many more young New Yorkers to thrive. To do this, we need to move our educational system toward a new New York. A philosophy of learning that is premised on the fundamental belief in the potential of every student. An education that embraces individuality over conformity. And multiple high quality pathways out of high school that are measurable, performance based and aligned with the Common Core.

Under the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, states are required to assess high school students in reading, math and science. However, states are not mandated to impose testing as a pathway to graduation . Standardized testing offers only a limited glimpse into a student’s mastery of a subject. Standardized tests were designed to rank us. Today, they are used as barriers to independence rather than bridges to the American dream.

There are replicable models in NYS that allow students to “learn by doing” outside of the traditionally academic environment. However, students must still pass exit exams to receive a high school diploma. Career and technical education that gives students the skills to pay the bills must be promoted as a valid and equally prestigious alternative to the traditional academic model.

The Board of Regents must embrace initiatives that enhance deeper learning and promote the development of performance based assessments. Deeper learning prepares students to be college and career ready. Deeper learning teaches students to think critically and solve complex problems, work collaboratively, communicate effectively and be self-directed and able to incorporate feedback . These alternatives, such as portfolios, will allow students to demonstrate the skills they have mastered without the high pressure of the Regents exams.

The Independent Living, disability, immigrant and youth rights movements need to unite to pressure the Board of Regents to create pathways to prosperity rather than pipelines to poverty.

Are you or someone you know a young person who wants to change the system? YOUTH POWER!’s Action Working Group is launching a campaign to raise awareness around the lack of meaningful graduation options for students with disabilities. Join us. Speak up and speak out. Your voice matters:
You can also get involved with NYSILC’s Youth Leadership Subcommittee:

If you are a concerned advocate or ally who wants to make sure all young people have the opportunity to demonstrate their true potential, join the Coalition for Multiple Pathways to a Diploma here: