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Budget squeeze may imperil state Regents exams

In this file photo, students take an exam

In this file photo, students take an exam at school. (Aug. 14, 2008) Credit: Newsday File, 2008 / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

A budget squeeze is prompting state education officials to consider eliminating as many as 13 of 17 existing Regents exams, an integral part of the state's education system for generations.

The elimination of exams and their accompanying curriculum guides - while considered a political long shot - would change the shape of high school courses and almost certainly lower graduation requirements for millions of students.

Officials say the cuts, if enacted, could save $13.7 million in the state's $40-million testing program.

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Those officials stress that the threatened cuts are only options. But the suggestion that Regents exams might be sharply reduced in math, social studies and other subjects has touched off a firestorm of criticism from teachers and school administrators on Long Island and elsewhere.

The optional cuts are to be discussed Monday in Albany, at a monthly meeting of the state Board of Regents.

"This would be disastrous. . . . It's demeaning scholarship," said Gloria Sesso, social studies director in the Patchogue-Medford district and co-president of the Long Island Council for the Social Studies.

Joanne E. O'Toole, past president of the New York State Association of Foreign Language Teachers, said her organization is "devastated" and already is e-mailing its objections to Regents and state lawmakers.

Privately published, college-level advanced placement exams are gaining increased importance in most Island high schools. Still, Regents exams are used to determine whether high school graduates meet basic requirements.

State education officials say they are seeking new sources of cash to avoid cuts, but that dwindling state financial support may leave them no choice. According to the State Budget Division, money provided by the general fund to the Education Department has dropped from $61 million last year to about $50 million this year. Gov. David A. Paterson has proposed a further cut to about $43 million next year.

Paterson's proposed reductions, aimed at helping to close a state budget deficit, are affecting not only state education operations but a wide array of other services, from state parks to hospital care.

"Clearly, in this fiscal environment, each agency is going to have to make difficult decisions," said Matt Anderson, a budget division spokesman.

Roger Tilles, the Island's representative to the Regents board, said his colleagues face "some real hard work" next week in deciding priorities, in light of the governor's proposed cuts.

That was echoed by John B. King Jr., a new senior deputy state education commissioner who drew up the options and said his agency was "asking the Regents to prepare for all contingencies, including possible changes in our assessment system."

Teachers and others say those changes would gut the state's 145-year-old Regents exam program - for example, by eliminating two of three math exams, three of four science exams, and exams in both American history and global history.

So drastic are the options that many educational leaders doubt they are politically feasible. "It's sort of like motherhood and apple pie," said Henry Grishman, superintendent of Jericho schools and president of the Nassau County Council of School Superintendents.

Michael Cohen, a former Brentwood superintendent, noted that costs of testing have risen rapidly in recent years, through expansions such as the federal No Child Left Behind program.

"A lot of us felt this whole thing would collapse of its own weight, and that's what we're seeing," he said.

Regents exams that may be discontinued

Regents exams under consideration for elimination by the state Board of Regents:

-Two of the three exams in mathematics (Integrated Algebra, Geometry, Algebra 2/Trigonometry)

-Three of the four exams in science (Earth Science, Living Environment, Chemistry, Physics)

-Both social studies exams (Global History and Geography, U.S. History and Government)

-Foreign language exams (French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Latin and Spanish are offered)

-Translated exams into Chinese, Haitian-Creole, Korean and Russian


The role of Regents exams


What's the purpose of Regents exams?

Since 1995, the state has moved toward having all non-disabled students pass at least five Regents exams to earn high school diplomas. More than 90 percent of Long Island teens now meet that standard.

Who takes the exams?

Most secondary students across the state, except those with severe disabilities, take some Regents exams - many starting in seventh or eighth grade.

Which colleges consider exam results?

Public colleges in New York State generally consider Regents scores as one criterion for admission. Students who score particularly well often are placed in advanced college courses. Many campuses exempt students from a foreign language requirement if they score 85 or higher on a Regents exam in that subject.

What are the ramifications if exams are eliminated?

Many school officials consider whole-scale elimination as politically unrealistic. If it happened, diploma requirements would almost certainly have to be lowered. The state also would face a much harder task in enforcing academic standards. With Regents exams in place, "A 75 score is a 75, whether it's in Jericho or Buffalo," observed Lois Smith, a guidance administrator in Jericho.

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