Bring back differential diplomas

All New York students must pass Regents exams in math, English, science and social studies to earn a diploma this year.  Writing in City Journal, teacher Marc Epstein predicts a diploma drought.

Once only college-bound students attempted to earn a rigorous Regents diploma, he writes. Other students earned a general diploma; in some towns, schools offered a commercial diploma or vocational diploma to help graduates qualify for jobs. But that system was dropped when critics charged it directed minority students into the workforce rather than on to college.

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.

Meryl Tisch, the new Regents chancellor, and David Steiner, the state commissioner of education, want to make the Regents tests more rigorous. The only sensible way to do that is to bring back the differential diploma, Epstein argues. That would require the political courage to “challenge the now-conventional bias in favor of routing all kids toward a college diploma of one kind or another.”

Update: Inside School Research reports on dueling studies on the effects of tracking students.  While a Fordham study found that higher math scores in tracked middle schools, University of Colorado Education Professor Kevin Weiner says “the research doesn’t account for differences in resource levels, teacher quality, parents’ education levels, and other factors that might explain the higher numbers of top-scoring students in schools with multiple tracks.”  His new study profiles three successful untracked schools.

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  1. Michael E. Lopez says:


    It’s lovely how the word “differential” can show up in programs that both support and undermine the notion of tracking.

  2. Andrew Bell says:

    When will we admit to ourselves that not all people can achieve the same thing in the same time. Some may never be able to achieve certain goals, despite the best of efforts.

    We don’t need a test to set high expectations for every student. We need teachers and principals to do this. But we have to realize that from time to time, our expectations may not be met. This is life.

    I’ll never play soccer as well as David Beckham, or cook as well as Jacques Pepin. But David will never cook as well as Jacques either, and I daresay Jacques won’t be playing in any World Cup matches anytime soon. We all have unique gifts, we just must be encouraged to make the best of those that we have.

  3. Some of the once-vaunted NY Regents exams have had significant curves added to them to ensure that those who proposed Regents-for-all don’t look bad. Some are a good 18-19%.
    Not only that, but the high school science exams closely resemble middle school exams with regards to content and difficulty.

  4. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Quoth Andrew Bell:

    We all have unique gifts, we just must be encouraged to make the best of those that we have.

    I disagree. We all have gifts. People with unique gifts tend to make millions of dollars with those gifts.

    Excellent tenors are a dime a dozen.
    Freddy Mercury had a unique gift.

    Excellent basketball players are a couple of hundred thousand dollars a dozen.
    Michael Jordan had a unique gift.

    Politicians are… well, they’re like armpits.
    But Bill Clinton had a unique gift.

  5. I graduated under differential diplomas in NYS and I have to say I thought it was a good thing. Now, as an adult, my only big concern is making sure that those with difficult developmental backgrounds have the opportunity to make up what they lack so they can succeed if they really are able.

    My high school had four different diplomas, ranging from vocational (you needed intense guidance counseling in order to get that one because they didn’t want anyone choosing it just because it’s more fun to work on cars than study), to academic, which was a step above the Regents and required certain scores on AP exams (students who couldn’t afford AP exams were sponsored). It wasn’t perfect; a friend of mine dropped from her honors classes to regular Regents classes to boost her GPA so her class ranking would be higher. It was a wise move, since colleges didn’t care what kind of diploma you got but did care what your class ranking was. She was rewarded for doing easier work than she was capable of doing.

    Now, as a parent and teacher, I’m struck by how different kids are and yet how we treat them as though they all have the same talents or interests when it comes to schooling. I really don’t konw how to make sure we don’t unfairly track students, but there’s got to be a way. Not everyone is ready to go to college at age 18 but they do need to know how to learn and improve so they can go into whatever field suits their interests and work ethic.


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