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State officials insist Regents exams still on for now; number of tests not decided

Ira Schwartz, a part-time specialist for the state

Ira Schwartz, a part-time specialist for the state Education Department, briefed the Board of Regents on graduation issues Monday. Credit: Hans Pennink

ALBANY — New York State most likely will continue using Regents exams for the foreseeable future, state school officials indicated Monday, though the exact number of such tests remains to be decided.

At a meeting of the policymaking Board of Regents, staffers pointed out that federal education law requires exams in English, math and science to be administered at least once to every high school student. New York does this through Regents exams, which have been an academic staple in the state since 1865.

"Even if the Regents wanted to sunset one of the exams, there would have to be something to take its place," said Ira Schwartz, a former associate state education commissioner for academic accountability.

Schwartz, who briefed the board on graduation issues Monday, recently retired and now serves the state Education Department as a part-time specialist. 

The fate of Regents exams has been questioned since February 2019, when the Regents'  chancellor, Betty Rosa of the Bronx, posted a column in a newsletter of the New York State School Boards Association. In that article, Rosa said the Regents exam system should be reviewed and possibly revised, in the interest of students who found it difficult to pass the exams and graduate.

In the wake of that posting, a growing number of educators and others statewide have denounced what they characterized as a move toward lower standards. But following Monday's briefing, Rosa said Schwartz's point was well taken, and denied there was any move afoot to eliminate the exams.

"How many times have I said, 'Where did this come from, that we're going to get rid of Regents exams?' " Rosa told a reporter. 

On Long Island, the complexities of graduation standards will be revisited this month, when hundreds of school administrators, teachers and others gather for regional workshops sponsored by the Regents. The first meeting is scheduled Wednesday at an Eastern Suffolk BOCES center in Holtsville and the second March 27 at a Western Suffolk BOCES facility in Wheatley Heights.

State education officials reported Monday that a dozen such sessions already had been held in other regions, attended by more than 1,375 school administrators, teachers, parents, students and others. The two upcoming meetings on the Island are among 18 scheduled around the state this month.

The stated purpose of the conferences is to air fundamental questions — for example, "What do we want students to know and to be able to do before they graduate?" Ideas expressed will be incorporated into what the state describes as a "thoughtful" process of revising graduation requirements that could take more than two years to complete. 

Underlying the general debate is the specific issue of Regents exams. While the continued existence of some exams now appears certain, decisions remain to be made on other issues. 

One open question is whether to continue the use of Regents exams in American history and world history, neither of which is required by federal law. Another question is whether to continue using the exams to decide if students get diplomas — also not a federal requirement. 

One move toward lessening the role of Regents exams was taken in 2015, when the Regents decided students could get credit toward graduation by passing an occupational or technical test in their area of concentration. The effect of this was to reduce the number of students required to pass Regents history exams. 

In advance of this month's regional conference, the Long Island Council for the Social Studies, representing more than 1,100 administrators and teachers, has issued a statement warning that any elimination of Regents exams in U.S. or global history would be "a dangerous step backward."

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