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Panel: Make Regents diploma sole credential for H.S. grads

Members of the state Board of Regents hold

Members of the state Board of Regents hold a meeting at the State Education Department in Albany on Monday, Nov. 14, 2016. Credit: Hans Pennink

State-level advisers Monday called for streamlining New York’s complex graduation system by recognizing Regents diplomas as the sole credential awarded annually to more than 170,000 high school graduates statewide, including more than 30,000 on Long Island.

So-called “local” diplomas, which set lower requirements than Regents diplomas, would be eliminated under recommendations issued by a 15-member advisory work group. The panel also urged a complete revamping of scores on state Regents exams, along with expansion of appeals for students who fall short of graduation requirements.

One question before the state’s policymaking Board of Regents is whether to proceed with plans, announced six years ago, to raise passing scores to 80 on Regents algebra exams and to 75 on Regents English Language Arts exams.

The work group’s report doesn’t address that issue directly. However, the panel’s recommendation to start fresh with a new scoring system would give the Regents an alternative that would not require setting higher passing scores.

Betty Rosa, the Regents chancellor, indicated during a brief interview after the report was delivered that she hoped the board would move in that alternative direction within a few months. Rosa said she particularly liked the report’s emphasis on judging students by the quality of all their coursework, not just a single snapshot in the form of a test score.

“It’s an opportunity to move away from a single Kodak moment,” Rosa said.

The work group’s report, released Monday at a meeting of the Board of Regents in Albany, comes as state policymakers are grappling with complaints from many school administrators, teachers and parents that academic testing has grown too time-consuming and has caused too many students to fail.

In Nassau and Suffolk counties, about 89,000 students in grades 3 through 8 — more than half of those eligible — boycotted state tests in April.

Work group members, headed by a veteran Long Island educator, acknowledged that their recommendations could not solve all the state’s academic challenges. Panelists added, however, that they hoped to make graduation and assessment rules simpler and easier for the public to understand, and to shift energy away from testing and toward better classroom instruction.

“Let’s start fresh,” said the group’s chairman, Jack Bierwirth, a former superintendent of the Herricks school system in North Hempstead Town and an expert on testing issues. “Let’s build a clear, simple, understandable system.”

Key points from the work group’s report that would require the Regents’ approval to take effect:

  • Regents diplomas, while the only graduation credential used, would increasingly be granted at varying levels of difficulty. For example, there would be a greater number of “advanced” Regents diplomas awarded to students who complete extra coursework and Regents exams in geometry, trigonometry, chemistry and physics.
  • Regents exams no longer would be scored on a traditional 100-point scale, with 65 as the passing mark. Students instead would get marks on a range of Levels 1 through 5, with Level 3 designated as passing. Individual grading would be on a decimal system — 2.5, 2.6, 2.7 — similar to marks commonly used at the college level.
  • Students scoring at Level 2 on Regents exams, below the usual passing mark, but who otherwise demonstrate proficiency in their coursework, would gain expanded rights to appeal such grades. Appeals would be decided by local school administrators, within guidelines set by the state.
  • Students struggling to pass Regents exams would be given greater opportunity to show proficiency on alternative assessments. As examples, the work group cited the PSAT, a privately published exam usually taken in 11th grade in preparation for college applications, or possibly a school-approved classroom project.
  • An additional student option would be a newly created Regents exam in statistics, which could substitute for exams in geometry or trigonometry.

Work group members expressed hope that a new grading system and appeals process would provide more support for special-education students and others who struggle to meet graduation requirements. The group recommended that the state conduct a review to ensure that such students aren’t overlooked as new graduation rules take effect.

Some advocates for students with disabilities contended, nonetheless, that Monday’s report should have gone further in providing an alternative for local diplomas, many of which go to those enrolled in special education. Advocates said such students, if they don’t receive diplomas upon leaving high school, often face difficulty in finding entry level jobs, even if they’re capable of handling the work.

“I am disappointed that today’s discussion did not directly address the crisis facing students with special needs who are unable to earn a recognizable high school diploma without passing Regents exams,” said State Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), in a statement issued after the education report’s release.

Kaminsky, who won re-election last week, has proposed legislation establishing a general-type diploma for special-education students.

The existing plan to raise passing scores to 80 on a Common Core Regents Algebra exam and to 75 on a Common Core English exam was to take place with students scheduled to graduate from high schools in 2022. Many local school officials have warned that any such action could cause high-school dropout rates to soar.


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