Rethinking Regents exams
BUFFALO — New York state is rethinking its requirements for a high school diploma, including the make-or-break Regents exams that have been around since the 1800s.
Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa initiated the discussion after the latest data showed graduation rates, while inching upward, remain stubbornly tied to race, poverty and special needs.
“Simply put, the system is not working for everyone, and too many students — particularly our most vulnerable students — are leaving high school without a diploma,” Rosa wrote in a recent edition of On Board, a publication of the New York State School Boards Association.
Overall, about 89% of white students who started high school in 2014 graduated on time, compared with 70% of black students and 69% of Hispanic students, according to state Education Department data.
New York is in the minority of states that require exit exams to graduate from high school. Among that shrinking number, New York also requires more exams.
That could change with the findings of a commission expected to get to work this fall on a review of what students should know before graduation and how they should prove it, whether through the current three-hour Regents exams or alternatives including projects or community activities.
“The Board of Regents and state Education Department have made it a priority to allow students to demonstrate their proficiency to graduate in many ways,” Education Department spokeswoman Emily DeSantis said in a statement. “As we have said, this is not about changing our graduation standards. It’s about providing different avenues — equally rigorous — for kids to demonstrate they are ready to graduate with a meaningful diploma.”
But Rochester School Board President Van White said he worried that getting rid of the exams would send the wrong message.
“I think there’s a lot of cynicism about what our students are capable of doing,” he told WHEC. “I want people to know that our citizens, our students by the thousands are flipping that tassel, meeting the rigorous standards of the State of New York. I don’t want there to be any doubt that maybe people are fudging the numbers or it’s been made a little bit easier.”
New York students must earn 22 credits and pass at least four Regents exams for a Regents diploma. Students must pass at least seven state exams for the advanced diploma designation seen as giving a boost to their college applications. The exams were first given in high school in 1878.
Standardized testing at every level, from the English and math assessments that begin in third grade to the SAT and ACT used in college admissions, have come under intense scrutiny in recent years. Opponents such as the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, or FairTest, argue such one-day assessments do little to advance learning while disadvantaging segments of the population.
High school exit exams, in particular, FairTest said, prevent tens of thousands of students from collecting a diploma, creating barriers to success even for students who have stayed in school and completed all of their other requirements.
Washington state lawmakers, with the support of the state superintendent’s office and education advocates, this year did away with a requirement that students pass a trio of English language arts, math and science exams to graduate. California and Nevada, after dropping exit exams in recent years, began offering diplomas retroactively to students who had not passed them.
Baldwin Union Free School District Superintendent Shari Camhi welcomes New York’s review of diploma requirements, citing her work with the School Superintendents Association’s national “Redefining Ready” initiative, which aims to broaden proficiency measures.
“Being able to pass four or five Regents should not be the be-all and end-all for somebody to get a high school diploma,” Camhi said. “In part because it’s too easy for some students and it’s difficult for others.”
Research, she said, shows that things like advanced coursework, attendance and a student’s overall grade point average are also reliable predictors of college or workplace success.
The Regents-appointed commission, which will include parents, students, educators, researchers and community leaders, is expected to be assembled in September, with a goal of presenting its findings to the Board of Regents in fall 2020.