Education in New York State
A special commission convened by the New York State Education Department is expected to present a new plan for school graduation requirements to the state Board of Regents in November.
The Blue Ribbon Commission on Graduation Measures has spent the last year examining the state’s current graduation requirements, and developing changes to the current assessment structure, like Regents exams, and the role of alternative educational pathways.
The group is made up of about 40 individuals representing various stakeholders, from teachers, school staff, parents, and more. Each meeting over the past year has focused on an element of the state’s current graduation requirements.
In July, the commission met in the Albany area for three days to discuss, evaluate, and finalize its recommendations on new graduation measures for approval from the Board of Regents.
“We have discussed everything from course and credit requirements to looking at financial literacy,” said Angelique Johnson-Dingle, deputy commissioner of P-12 instructional support. “We’ve talked a bit about ethnic studies, culturally responsive sustaining education, and of course, the role of Regents exams.”
In New York, students must pass four Regents exams and complete a pathway in one subject to earn a high school diploma. However, in recent years, there has been discussion to determine if the current exams are the best fit to prepare students for college, careers, and civic engagement.
This requirement was established in the mid-90s in an effort to use more rigorous testing to increase New York’s educational standards. When it was introduced in 1996, the policy was regarded as “the most significant change in state education policy in more than a decade” according to a New York Times article released days before the initial decision was made.
The change was relatively controversial. Some school officials viewed it as a way to increase student achievement, while others thought that requiring these exit exams would increase both costs and dropout rates. Another concern was that the requirement would be implemented too quickly to have the expected positive effects.
Many of these concerns remain today and are being discussed by the commission, partly because of how graduation rates increased during the two years without Regents exams. The 2018-2019 school year saw an 83% graduation rate for the state, jumping to an 87% graduation rate in 2022, according to the state.
The increase in graduation rates is understood differently across New York’s population. Some see the change as proof that high school exit exams, like the Regents, do not accurately or completely demonstrate student success. Others maintain that the exams are an important measure of achievement and preparedness for life after graduation. They tend to see removing exit exams as representative of a decline in New York’s educational standards.
The Region 2 Comprehensive Center (R2CC) from WestEd, an education development nonprofit, is one of 19 comprehensive centers spanning the U.S. that works to identify and implement educational practices that are supported by evidence that demonstrates beneficial student and educator outcomes.
At NYSED’s request, R2CC conducted a literature review that found studies linking optional rigorous coursework, college preparatory programs, and increased exposure to math in high school to positive college outcomes.
Meanwhile, the review found that assessments required for graduation, such as high school exit exams, did not correlate positively with college or career outcomes. Rather, there is evidence that demonstrates the benefit of high school’s providing alternative pathways to graduation. This could lessen the consequences of failing an exit exam.
Jaime Ciffone, Executive Vice President of New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), said that having alternative pathways to earn a diploma would be beneficial for students and teachers adjusting to new learning processes.
“Our educators are assessing students all the time, right? We are monitoring progress. We are celebrating the growth that our students make,” Ciffone said.
“I think that the Regents diploma really signifies that all of those learning standards that New York State has set forth have been achieved,” Ciffone said. “The assessment is one way, but there could be multiple pathways in which we look at the ways in which these are met.”
The commission hopes that changes to graduation requirements could make a difference for gaps in achievement, especially for students of color, students with disabilities, English language learners, and low-income students.
In the 2021-2022 school year, the state graduation rate was 87%, according to data from the State Education Department. In comparison, the graduation rate was 65% for English language learners.
Dr. Sagrario Rudecindo-O’Neill, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Student Support at Beacon City School District and a member of the commission, said that COVID-19 further exposed inequities that exist in schools.
“I myself am a former ENL student, so English is not my first language, so ENL is near and dear to my heart,” Rudecindo-O’Neill said. “When we look at our graduation requirements, just how can we ensure that our students have access and opportunity like all other students, not just to the curriculum, but also to the opportunity to receive a diploma and be able to find fulfillment in whatever they want to do in the future.”
Samantha Bruno, a recent graduate of South Manor High School in Suffolk County, says that having students on the commission allows it to acknowledge perspectives that tend to be overlooked.
“I give my perspective on what it’s like to go through what we already have,” Bruno said. “[High school is] more rigorous, I feel, because a lot of people struggle to keep up with the demand of, say. The Regents exams and the general course requirements. And especially people of the special education background have a lot of struggles with the current way that things are.”
Dr. Rudecindo-O’Neill added that students are interested in applying what they learn in the classroom to real-world scenarios.
“Our students really want to be involved in advocacy, they want relevance to what they’re learning,” Rudecindo-O’Neill said. “It’s not that we didn’t know, but we didn’t know how much it really drives them.”
The commission is expected to present their recommendations to the Regents in November.
The changes will take time to implement due to the large number of students affected. Because the updated practices need to be universally understood across the state, Johnson-Dingle says public outreach and professional learning opportunities may be extended before the changes are made.
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