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Conference focuses on revising high school graduation requirements

Dozens of educators gathered in Holtsville on Wednesday

Dozens of educators gathered in Holtsville on Wednesday evening for the state's first regional conference on revising high school diploma requirements. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

Catherine Sturtz, a business teacher from Miller Place, raised the idea on behalf of her discussion group that schools make sure that some of the exit exams they give students in their final years of high school align with the entrance tests they encounter in college.

That way, said Sturtz, who has taught for 18 years, more students might avoid being assigned to remedial courses in math and writing during their initial years of college — along with the tuition fees charged for such courses.

Jachan Watkis, director of science at North Babylon High School, said he and his colleagues would like to see students encouraged to carefully analyze, rather than just read and pass along, the information provided by social outlets such as Facebook and Instagram.

“Many aren’t looking to see how reliable is that information,” Watkis said later.

Sturtz and Watkis were among about 180 school supervisors, teachers, parents and others who volunteered to participate in a 2 1/2-hour regional workshop conference Wednesday night at an Eastern Suffolk BOCES center in Holtsville. The meeting is one of dozens being sponsored across New York by the state’s policymaking Board of Regents.

On Long Island, a second regional conference will be held March 27 at a Western Suffolk BOCES center in Wheatley Heights.

State education officials say 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 meetings in Holtsville and Wheatley Heights 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, which have been administered here in one form or another for 155 years, and which some critics regard as insurmountable barriers for large numbers of would-be graduates.   

Such arguments rankle others, who contend that traditional exams remain essential for determining whether students have absorbed enough historical and scientific facts to function as citizens and taxpayers.

The emphasis of the conferences on the state’s examination system — and how it might be revised — has led some educators to conclude that New York may be shifting toward lower academic standards. Peter Goodman, a former New York City social studies teacher and union representative, who now writes a weekly blog, recently concluded, “I fear we are edging towards moving the bar lower.”

Conference organizers have insisted, on the other hand, that they genuinely want to poll local educators and other for their opinions before taking further action.

Roger Tilles of Manhasset, who has represented the Island on the Regents board for the past 15 years, made the point at Wednesday's conference.

“We really are open as to where we want to go, and that’s why your input is so important,” said Tilles, who was elected to a fourth five-year term Tuesday by state lawmakers.

Several major changes in the examination system already are in place.

In 2015, the Regents board unanimously agreed to let students who wanted to graduate with concentrations in technical courses, the arts or other selected subjects to get a waiver from taking one Regents exam. 

Instead, such students can now 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 taking Regents history exams, since other state tests in English, math and science remained mandatory.

The state refers to these alternate routes as "new pathways." 

The occupational waiver was followed in 2016 by another measure, allowing students to appeal scores on Regents exams ranging from 60 to 64. The usual passing mark is 65.

Meanwhile, graduation rates continued inching up. Last month, state education officials announced that 81.2% of 12th graders statewide had graduated in June, up 0.8 percentage point from the previous year. 

On the Island, 89.1% of students graduated, an improvement of 0.7 of a percentage point. 

In Albany, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's website states that the annual graduation rate "has increased every year and has now reached the highest level in state history."

That's true, but it glosses over the fact that New York could have a tough time catching up with leading states, so long as its gains are less than one percentage point a year.

In 2016-17, New York's graduation rate was 82%, tied with Florida for the 38th spot among states. No. 1 was New Jersey, tied with Iowa at 91%.

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