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New York Could Enhance Academic Rigor by Modifying Graduation Requirements
New York state has a rich and proud history of conducting rigorous subject-area examinations, allowing its most advanced students to demonstrate mastery of challenging academic content. For the past two decades, the state has mandated that all students pass five of these exams—later reduced to four—in order to earn a high school diploma. However, the state’s Board of Regents is now considering removing this requirement. Critics argue that doing so would result in a lowering of standards.
However, this criticism is unfounded. Eliminating the tests in their current form could actually enhance rigor and meritocracy in New York’s high schools, while also ensuring that a wider range of students, including those who do not plan to attend college, are well-prepared for success in early adulthood.
Historically, the Regents exams were not administered to every student. They were designed to assess the achievement of the highest-performing students—the ones considered capable of college preparatory work. In New York City, which has the largest public-school system in the country, these exams, akin to the SAT, served as a pathway to social mobility for disadvantaged students, immigrants, and first-generation Americans. A “Regents diploma” signified outstanding achievement across a broad range of college preparatory coursework completed over four years of high school. Other students received a “local diploma” if they had attended high school for four years and passed the required courses.
However, the past two decades of requiring all students to take these exams have been unsuccessful in raising achievement. The goal of college preparedness has been set for students who were never previously expected to meet it, while standards for academically gifted students have been diluted. Additionally, this approach has wasted the time and talents of students who are not bound for college.
Starting in 2004, all students who passed the five (later four) required tests were granted a Regents diploma. Students who passed the entire sequence of nine exams were awarded a Regents diploma with advanced designation. Only students with special needs were eligible for a local diploma.
This policy change has resulted in instances where rigor has been compromised to accommodate lower-achieving students, thus undermining the purpose of the tests. These instances have ranged from school administrators cheating to more benign attempts to improve test scores through “scrubbing” exams, such as looking for additional points in an essay response to meet the graduation threshold.
The state education department has also diluted the content of the exams and reduced the required number and percentage of correct answers for passing the tests. For example, the English Regents exam used to be a six-hour test administered over two days, but it has now been shortened by half. As early as 1996, during the implementation of the new graduation requirement, the state dismissed the results of a Regents Mathematics exam when seventy students failed, allowing them to graduate if they had received a passing grade in their coursework.
These practices, brought about by the misguided decision to mandate formerly rigorous exams for all high school students, reached absurd levels during the Covid-related school closures. The spring 2020 exams were cancelled, and the spring 2021 exams were shortened. In 2022, students were allowed to appeal their test scores if they achieved a score of at least 50, as opposed to the usual passing score of 65.
The Board of Regents is correct in moving to eliminate this requirement. However, it seems that they may be making a mistake by proposing a single diploma policy for all students. Rather than having three types of diplomas—local, Regents, and Regents with Advanced Designation—they should have a single Regents diploma that includes a notation or seal indicating superior achievement.
The Regents should revert to the original system. They should recognize that students enter and leave high school with different abilities, motivations, and goals. The board should ensure that all high school graduates meet a high standard of achievement that aligns with their chosen path. Students with exceptional academic abilities should follow the old-style Regents exam track leading to a full Regents Academic diploma, with exams restored to their previous level of rigor. Students who are more inclined towards workforce preparation should be allowed to pursue a sequence of courses aligned with industry standards in their chosen field and have their performance assessed based on their proficiency in those standards, rather than through Regents examinations. After all, the labor market demands not only white-collar workers but also students who excel and lead fulfilling lives in technical fields.
Some students thrive in a more progressive educational environment where formal examinations are less prominent. Schools that are part of the Performance Standards Consortium, operating under a partial waiver of the current testing requirements, are permitted to substitute two of the four required Regents exams with their own rigorous assessments. These schools have a proven track record of success with these students. The Regents should expand this project and provide adequate training for teachers in the Consortium’s methods. Additionally, the local diploma should be reinstated to indicate that a student attended high school (with strict attendance tracking) and passed their courses.
The era of assuming that all students want or need to attend college is over. New York’s Board of Regents should acknowledge this reality and recognize that success and achievement can take different forms for different students. Only then can our schools provide equal opportunities for social mobility to all students.
Ray Domanico is a senior fellow and director of education policy at the Manhattan Institute.
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