Why High School Graduation Exams Shouldn’t be Abandoned

Ray Domanico’s recent blog post advocating for a revamp of New York State’s high school graduation requirements raises several significant concerns about the current system. However, the reforms it supports would hinder the progress of educational transparency, accountability, and improvement.

Domanico asserts that the state’s mandatory end-of-course Regents exams have been diluted over time, both in terms of their content and passing scores, due to the fact that all students must pass these exams to graduate. To address this issue, he proposes abandoning the one-size-fits-all approach and implementing a tiered system. Under this system, students, their parents, or their schools would be able to choose from multiple diploma options, each with its own assessment criteria.

Domanico suggests that only students pursuing an “academic” diploma should be required to pass rigorous end-of-course Regents exams. Students focusing on vocational or technical pathways could demonstrate their proficiency in those specific areas. For schools that provide a progressive educational environment, they would have the flexibility to develop their own assessments, aligned with their unique curricular models, similar to the limited waiver currently in place. Additionally, students who meet their high school course requirements and maintain a reasonable attendance level would be awarded a “local diploma.”

In many ways, this proposal harkens back to the past. I grew up in New York State during what Domanico might consider the “good old days” before the Regents exam became a universal high school graduation requirement. At my suburban high school, most non-vocational students took the Regents as their final exam, which the teacher used to determine our final grades, at least in math and science. However, other high schools, particularly those in low-income minority neighborhoods, rarely administered the Regents exams, reserving them only for college-bound students. Regardless of who took the tests, diplomas were awarded to everyone, unless they dropped out or failed to meet the minimum GPA or attendance requirements. I technically received a “Regents diploma” because I took the Regents exams, although I was unaware of the distinction.

During that time, school and district-level test-taking patterns were not closely monitored. Due to the differing policies and practices around test participation, the results would not have provided useful data for public accountability, even if there was an effort to collect it.

The bottom line is that adopting an opt-in approach to the Regents exam would reintroduce the same kind of manipulation and excuse-making that concealed the failures and inequities of school systems before the standards-based reforms of the 1990s and early 2000s. If given the option, urban school systems would likely choose not to use state assessments as part of their graduation requirements, opting instead for locally developed assessments and diplomas tied to different standards, if any. Meanwhile, in most suburbs, where parents demand assurances of college readiness, “academic” diplomas tied to state exams would remain the norm.

In other words, New York would be reverting to the pre-reform system that fostered what President George W. Bush aptly described as “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

Here in Massachusetts, our state assessment system, known as MCAS, requires high school students to achieve passing scores on 10th-grade exams in English and Math, as well as at least one science test, in order to graduate. There are plans to eventually add a U.S. history test as a graduation standard. Like in New York, the passing scores have gradually decreased over time, resulting in the MCAS bar being relatively easy to clear. However, as a result of actions taken by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in 2022, the graduation standard will be gradually raised over the next few years, assuming a potential 2024 ballot question to eliminate MCAS as a graduation requirement is unsuccessful.

In order to uphold a consistent set of academic expectations for all students, without setting unrealistic targets or unfairly denying diplomas to students who have otherwise shown satisfactory achievement, Massachusetts has implemented various alternative pathways for students who do not achieve a passing score in 10th grade to demonstrate sufficient competency. These pathways include the completion of an Educational Proficiency Plan designed by the student’s school to address specific learning gaps in 11th and 12th grades. These plans may involve participation in a structured, state-approved occupational pathway or early college program.

Domanico is justified in criticizing the New York Board of Regents for lowering standards and questioning whether a single test can sustain higher standards. However, his proposed solution would create more problems than it solves.

James A. Peyser served as secretary of education for Massachusetts from 2015–2022 and as chairman of the state board of education from 1999–2006.

The article Don’t Abandon Common High School Graduation Exams was originally published on Education Next.

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