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Regents exams being put to test as state undertakes balancing act

Policymakers in Albany are reconsidering the state’s high school graduation requirements and the use of what has long been considered the gold standard for earning a diploma in New York: the Regents exams.

While nothing has been decided yet, the state Education Department and the Board of Regents, its governing body, have outlined a plan to appoint a review commission by September with recommendations to the board as early as the fall of 2020.

These standardized tests have a history in New York going back 150 years and have been used as a barometer for whether kids have received a good education before exiting high school. Students are required to pass five Regents exams and accrue 22 credit hours of coursework to obtain a Regents diploma.

The Board of Regents remains “committed to moving forward with its review of what is necessary to earn a diploma in New York State,” said Emily DeSantis, a spokeswoman for the State Education Department.

“As we have said, this is not about changing our graduation standards,” DeSantis said. “It’s about providing different avenues – equally rigorous – for kids to demonstrate they are ready to graduate with a meaningful diploma.”

The discussion – sure to spark lively debate – was initiated earlier this year by Chancellor Betty A. Rosa who wrote a piece for the New York School Boards Association suggesting it was time to rethink New York’s high school diploma.

While the state’s graduation rate has increased – 80% graduated on time in 2018 – progress has been incremental, and gaps persist, particularly among students of color and low-income students, as well as those with disabilities or learning English as a new language.

In Buffalo, 64.5% of students districtwide earned their diplomas on time last year, which includes those who graduated in August.

“Simply put,” Rosa wrote, “the system is not working for everyone and too many students – particularly our most vulnerable students – are leaving high school without a diploma.”

Rosa suggested this conversation should include what students need to know upon graduation, whether the Regents exams improve graduation rates and college readiness and what other measures might be used as better indicators of high school completion.

“There are strong feelings on both sides of this issue,” Rosa wrote. “Regents exams have been the gold standard for over a century – and with good reason. But our systems must be continually reviewed, renewed and occasionally revised in order to best serve our students and the people of this great state.”

The discussion about revamping requirements should come as no surprise given the attention and pressure to improve graduation rates, both in New York and across the country.

“Everybody is in this race to raise graduation rates,” said Timothy G. Kremer, executive director of the New York State School Boards Association. “It’s become a very important measurement for school districts, and clearly for states, to show progress on graduation.

“But in many cases, we’re dealing with very diverse, challenging student populations and not every child is going to go on to college, not every child is going to test well,” Kremer said. “It’s going to be impossible to raise graduation rates unless they come up with some alternative pathway other than the Regents test.”

It was the mid-1990s when Richard Mills, then state education commissioner, laid out a plan to phase out the option for a local diploma – which allowed students to graduate with lower scores – as well as the Regents Competency Test, a lower-level exit exam.

Instead, all graduating students would need not only 22 credit hours of coursework, but would be required to pass five Regents exams, a more rigorous test.

The plan was met with acceptance by many because there was a big emphasis nationally on higher standards, as well as concern that the state’s two-tiered graduation system allowed some students to finish high school without a meaningful education.

But there also was recognition that some kids wouldn’t be able to pass the Regents exams. The rollout was slow. The state wasn’t even finished implementing the tougher Regents diploma requirements before it was under pressure to move away from this “one-size-fits-all” approach to graduation and consider alternative ways to earn a diploma.

Over the past few years, the state has made a series of changes that give students more opportunities to do just that.

For example, instead of requiring all high school students to pass five Regents exams there is now more flexibility for students to pass the exams in math, science, English language arts and social studies and then explore the arts, another language or a career and technical education, and have it count toward graduation.

For some students who fall short on one or two of the Regents exams, they can appeal and still earn a local diploma.

And the state, most recently, made it easier for students with disabilities to graduate.

“We’re doing a lot of things to bolster these kids who are struggling, and I think this is a continuation of that conversation,” Kremer said of the proposed commission.

Plans for a review of graduation requirements came to light earlier this month during a Board of Regents meeting, where officials indicated 60% of states do not require an exit exam to graduate high school. Of those 20 states with exit exams, it was pointed out, more than half require three or fewer – not five.

Catherine Collins, a local representative on the Board of Regents, thinks there should be more alternative paths to graduation and said it probably makes sense to take a closer look at the number of required Regents exams for New York.

But Collins said she would not be in favor of simply scrapping the Regents altogether.

“I would like to see us continue the Regents," Collins said. "I know people are concerned about whether it’s too stringent for kids, with some of the requirements, but I've got to go with my experiences being a student in Buffalo and having a Regents.”

In fact, Collins thought the timetable for this issue to come back to the Board of Regents may take a little longer due to the recent resignation of state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia. Collins suspects the board may want Elia’s permanent successor in place to help steer the debate.

Kremer, for example, realizes there will be some earnest students who can’t pass the Regents exams despite their best efforts.

“Do we deny them graduation?” Kremer said. “I don’t think so.”

At the same time, he worries about lowering standards at a time when schools are already hearing from colleges and businesses about students graduating high school unprepared.

“It’s a complicated conversation the commission is going to have,” Kremer said.

“There’s a balancing act here between giving all students a fair chance to earn a diploma, but also trying to ensure diplomas mean something,” said Robert N. Lowry Jr., deputy director for the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

“It remains to be seen where it will lead,” Lowry said, “but I think it’s a worthwhile discussion.”

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