ALBANY — Regents exams, a scholastic staple for more than a century, would remain in place but with reduced status, under a state advisory commission's recommendations released Monday.
The "blue ribbon" panel would keep the three-hour exams as diploma requirements, at least for many students. But there would be other options as well. For example, students could get credit for graduation through less traditional "performance-based" assessments — say, writing research papers or delivering oral reports in class.
Guidelines for performance assessments would be developed by teachers and approved by the state. This approach is controversial, because it has been tried in other states such as Vermont, and has proved difficult to apply on a uniform basis from one school district to another.
The commission also recommends eliminating the state's current system of awarding three types of diplomas, determined largely by the number of exams students pass. Those three categories — Regents with Advanced Designation, ordinary Regents or local — would be replaced with a single diploma. That credential could be accompanied by "seals" or endorsements signifying students completed extra coursework in specialized subjects.
WHAT TO KNOW
- A state commission issued recommendations Monday that would keep the Regents exam as diploma requirements, at least for many students. There would be other options as well, such as credit for writing research papers or delivering oral reports in class.
- Proponents of changing the existing system said combining standardized exams with performance tests was superior to use of exams alone, while critics worried changes could lower standards.
- Monday's review is the latest development in an ongoing debate over the state's diploma standards that began more than four years ago, and included whether Regents exams should be retained as requirements.
Details of the plan remain to be worked out; proponents acknowledge the effort could take three years or more to put into effect. The plan, if ultimately successful, could affect about 160,000 high school seniors statewide each year, including more than 30,000 on Long Island.
In Albany, the state's Board of Regents, which sets educational policy, spent nearly two hours discussing and debating the commission's plan Monday morning, with mostly favorable reactions. Regents are not expected to take action on any recommendations until next fall, after state education staffers have time to work out specifics.
State Education Commissioner Betty A. Rosa, who is spearheading the drive for change, contended a "composite" system combining standardized exams with performance tests was superior to use of pen-and-paper exams alone.
"Every student has unique talents, skills and interests, and a one-size-fits-all approach fails to recognize and nurture these differences," the commissioner declared in a statement released along with the commission's report.
One Regent, Catherine Collins of Buffalo, spoke up for traditional Regents exams as she has on past occasions, contending that those tests serve as a spur for students to master rigorous courses in science.
"It looks like our Regents diploma and our Regents exams are on the chopping block," Collins said.
The commission, appointed in September 2022, consists of 64 adults and four students. Members include special education experts, school administrators, teachers, parents and business representatives, with eight from Nassau and Suffolk counties.
Aside from diploma issues, the commission's dozen recommendations include:
- Expanded instruction in areas such as financial literacy, performing arts, engineering and technology, along with increased emphasis on "real world" writing assignments and job internships.
- Tailored graduation requirements and exemptions from assessments for students facing unique obstacles and disruptions in their lives, such as "refugees" or those with "significant cognitive disabilities."
- Added requirements for teacher-training programs to provide instruction responsive to students' cultures.
Monday's review is the latest development in an ongoing debate over the state's diploma standards that began more than four years ago, and included whether Regents exams should be retained as requirements.
Last week, Rosa insisted during an online meeting with reporters that the de-emphasis on Regents exams did not represent a retreat from rigorous requirements. To the contrary, Rosa said the idea of multiple ways of assessing students was "really, truly not a lowering of standards, not a negative, it's a positive."
Still, the idea that Regents exams should be supplanted partly by nontraditional assessments raises concerns in some quarters. In Melville last month, one social studies expert told state officials attending a regional conference that reduced standardized testing could leave schools without a means of determining whether students were acquiring knowledge and skills needed to succeed as adults.
"We're afraid now that they [the students] are going to walk out of high school, and they're not going to know anything about American history, except maybe they do a project," said the social studies representative, Gloria Sesso of Port Jefferson.
Sesso is president of the Long Island Council for the Social Studies, representing about 1,100 school supervisors and teachers in the region.
Currently, in order to graduate, students must pass Regents exams in at least four subjects: English, math, science and social studies. The latter includes history and government. Exam scores of 65 or higher are generally required, though state exemptions allow students to earn local diplomas with lower marks.
One question raised by skeptics is whether the commission's plans for extra lessons in civic responsibility and financial literacy actually break new ground. The state already requires all students to complete a semester's work in "Participation in Government" and another semester in economics, which includes a unit on finance.
Supporters of the plan emphasize the importance of recommendations for a single diploma and for flexible testing options.
"We're on the path to changing the face of education," said Lorna Lewis, a Long Islander and member of the commission's steering committee.
Lewis is superintendent of Malverne schools and a former president of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.
Aside from the review of Regents exams, the state's rethinking of academic requirements reflects a growing skepticism over the value of standardized testing in general.
Last week, the New York State United Teachers union, representing nearly 700,000 members, issued its own report entitled "More Teaching Less Testing." Like the state commission, a union task force endorsed the idea of alternate pathways to graduation.
But union representatives went further, calling for a change in federal law that would eliminate required annual testing in English and math for all students in grades 3 to 8 nationwide. Instead, the union plan would require such testing just once in elementary school and once again in middle school.
On Monday, the union's president, Melinda Person released a statement describing the commission's recommendations as promising "a bright future for our students."