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Regents, education leaders to take critical look at graduation exit exams

Shari Camhi, superintendent of Baldwin schools, welcomes 4-year-old

Shari Camhi, superintendent of Baldwin schools, welcomes 4-year-old Alani Pierre Philipp after she registered for kindergarten Aug. 12. Camhi has come up with a plan for revamped graduation standards in New York State that would make Regents exams optional.  Photo Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

For the first time in more than 20 years, many educational leaders statewide and on Long Island are embarking upon a far-reaching and controversial reassessment of what students must do to earn high school diplomas.

The effort includes a critical look at Regents exams, a battery of three-hour-long tests regarded as New York State's academic "gold standard." Students must pass exams in English, math, science and history in order to graduate.

One question before the Board of Regents, the state's highest educational policy board, is whether those tests should continue to serve as the primary gatekeepers to graduation. The alternative, advocates said, is a shift to other academic bench marks, many of which did not exist when Regents exams were introduced in 1865.

The ultimate decision could affect more than 160,000 high school seniors statewide each year, including more than 30,000 in Nassau and Suffolk counties. 

Jennifer Wolfe, a social studies teacher at Oceanside High School, hopes the reassessment will come up with alternatives for students who struggle to pass state exams. Regents tests should not be the only criteria in deciding who graduates, Wolfe said. 

"I mean," Wolfe said, "it kills me to grade Regents exams for students who are seniors and many have taken the world history exam two or three times, and they fall short by one or two points, so they can't graduate. It's terrible. It makes you sick, and there's nothing we can do, and it happens more often than you might think." 

No one expects quick answers.

Betty Rosa, a former Bronx school administrator who now serves as the Regents chancellor, told a reporter at a Regents meeting in mid-July she would prefer "rethinking" diploma requirements, a process that could take up to two years to complete. Rosa's remark followed a spirited 90-minute discussion and debate on the topic by the 17-member board. 

Pressures for change are mounting, nonetheless, and not only in New York State.

At the national level, a school superintendents group, the AASA, formerly known as the American Association of School Administrators, is pushing for graduation standards that would place less reliance on state exams. Instead, the school chiefs group would put more emphasis on criteria such as students' grade-point averages and scores on college admissions tests.

On the Island, some school administrators have embraced the AASA's recommendations. 

“It’s about time we rethink what it takes to graduate a New York State high school,” said Shari Camhi, superintendent of the Baldwin district, which serves about 4,600 students in southern Hempstead Town. Camhi also serves on AASA's national governing board. 

Camhi, drawing on the AASA's proposal, has come up with a plan for revamped graduation standards in New York State that would make Regents exams optional. The initiative was presented last fall at a state-level superintendents conference in Saratoga Springs, where it attracted widespread attention.

Some, however, are unsettled by the idea of de-emphasizing Regents exams.   

Joel Katz, a retired CPA and taxpayer advocate who lives in Port Washington, contacted Newsday after reading about July's meeting of the Regents. Like many, Katz wonders how the state will track students' progress in math, science and other subjects, if it cuts back on its use of year-end, subject-specific exams.

"And that's a shame, because science and math courses are the sort that advance our society and civilization," Katz said.

State school officials respond that standards will not be fundamentally changed or lowered.

"It's about providing different avenues — equally rigorous — for kids to demonstrate they are ready to graduate with a meaningful diploma," said Emily DeSantis, a spokeswoman for the state Education Department.  

Here are other questions commonly raised about proposed shifts in the state's requirements for graduation.

Why is New York reconsidering use of Regents exams?

Some proponents of change contend that New York's students face a tougher time earning diplomas than their counterparts in many other states.

That might seem surprising, given that New York's spending on public education — more than $23,000 per student annually — is the highest in the nation. Yet, the state's graduation rate of 82 percent lags behind rates in 37 other states, according to the latest federal data collected for the 2016-17 school year.

Critics point out that New York is one of only 11 states that require exit exams to graduate. The requirement in this state is a total of either four or five Regents exams, depending on the particular pathway to graduation chosen by the student. 

Only Virginia requires more exit exams — six. 

On Long Island and elsewhere, influential parent groups are lobbying for fewer standardized tests, with more options for students.

One parent who sees a need for change is Jill Schweitzer, a freelance writer who lives in Oceanside and is active in a Facebook group called Multiple Pathways to a Diploma for All. Schweitzer's son, a 10th-grader, attends a public school outside the district, where students can obtain extra academic help.

The mother worries that her son will face difficulty passing Regents exams in future years, even though, she said, his class grades range from the high 80s to low 90s.

"That's what it boils down to: Can you pass five exams?" Jill Schweitzer said. "Looking at some past tests, I'm not sure I could run that gauntlet, and I have a master's degree." 

Some veteran superintendents contend, on the other hand, that Regents exams are useful, because they cover specific academic subjects, and because results from those assessments allow for comparisons of achievement between districts and individual schools.

Charles Russo, superintendent of East Moriches schools, said he is disturbed by news of a potential state pullback on Regents tests.

"What I'm reading looks like a step back in educational standards, and I don't support that," said Russo, who is a past president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association.

Are the proposed alternatives workable?

Already, several states and individual school districts are trying alternative approaches. Broadly, these proposed substitutes for traditional, end-of-the-year state exams can be split into two categories.

One category is known as "performance-based" assessment, because it relies on students' ability to carry out specific projects, such as writing research papers or performing instrumental music.

The Comsewogue district, which serves the Port Jefferson Station area, has piloted performance-based assessment — for example, by encouraging students to deliver oral presentations of their research before audiences of teachers and classmates. On a broader scale, Rhode Island has required 12th-graders statewide to demonstrate what they've learned in a variety of ways, such as compiling portfolios of written papers.

Performance-based evaluation has its limitations, however. One drawback, experts said, is the difficulty in setting uniform scoring standards for student projects that differ widely in scope.

In 1992, the state of Vermont scaled back a heavily publicized effort to evaluate students on the basis of writing portfolios, after analysts at RAND Corp., a nonprofit think tank, concluded that ratings given students were not reliably consistent.

Another category of alternative assessments is standardized exams produced at the national and international levels, rather than by New York or other states.

AASA, the superintendents organization, lists both Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate tests as potential indicators of students' qualifications for diplomas. AP and IB exams cover material taught at the collegiate level.

AASA also includes two college admissions tests: the SAT, which is widely used on the East Coast, and the ACT, which is popular in central and southern parts of the country. 

Ankita Katukota, 18, a recent graduate of Oceanside High School, would like the state to put more emphasis on AP courses and exams. Katukota, who was class valedictorian, completed 13 AP courses — an achievement that helped her win admission to the University of California Los Angeles. 

"I think shifting a bit more to SATs and AP tests would be beneficial for everybody," Katukota said. "If your school offered, say, 20 AP courses, and you only took four or five, that might be a factor in a college's decision. They want to know you challenged yourself." 

Last month, an Albany-based think tank, the Rockefeller Institute of Government, posted an article suggesting that either the SAT or ACT replace at least some Regents exams.

The author of the piece, Brian Backstrom, who directs education policy studies at the institute, noted that New York already allows students to substitute math scores on the SAT for marks on Regents exams at a certain level. Backstrom also pointed out that the SAT and ACT take less than a day to complete, while batteries of Regents exams consume more than a week's time at the end of each school year. 

"There are states saying, 'Why should we spend a lot of time designing our own tests when SAT and ACT are commonly accepted measures of a degree of college readiness?' " Backstrom said. "It's not the end-all and be-all, but it's certainly well known."

Other analysts view such proposals skeptically.

Michael Cohen, president of Achieve, a Washington-based research and advocacy group, said a review by his group found that 40 to 45 percent of math items on the ACT measured academic content taught below the eighth grade. 

"That's not going to measure whether a student has mastered high school mathematics," Cohen said. 

Publishers of the ACT said, on the other hand, that the actual percentage is closer to 30 percent, and that the ACT's validity is demonstrated by the fact that 14 states require its use in their assessment programs.

Any chance Regents exams will disappear?

Not likely, though the number of required tests eventually might be reduced, judging from remarks made at July's Regents meeting. Indeed, board members who explicitly defended the exams and the concept of Regents diplomas in general just about balanced out those who urged an overhaul. 

Such a debate has not occurred since 1995. That was the year state educational officials first proposed Regents exams be administered to all high school students, and that a set of easier "competency tests" be phased out, which is what eventually happened.

At the time, advocates contended that switching to an all-Regents system would end a system of academic tracking that stranded many minority students in nonacademic courses where they had little chance to prepare for college. At the July meeting, several Regents argued that creation of multiple routes to a diploma could revive tracking. 

One telling moment came toward the end of the debate, in an exchange between Rosa and Regent Wade Norwood, a health-systems executive from Rochester.

Rosa pressed the point that not all students need to pass a battery of academic exams in order to succeed at their careers. 

"Recently," Rosa began, "and most of you have had this experience, you meet a young person who says, 'I am going to quit school. I want to perform. I want to be on Broadway. This is what I want to do. My world has been from the time I was a little boy to do this, and everyone in the school wants to make me a ... whatever ... you fill in the blank.' " 

Norwood responded that talk of replacing Regents exams had rattled some constituents.

"What I hear from my business and higher-ed community," Norwood said, "is a real concern that this not be a move by which the Board of Regents and the department backs away from rigor. So we have to be very clear that this is not an attempt to water down, but rather to modernize and to respond to the 21st century and the way our children have lived it."

LI SCHOOL DISTRICT OPENINGS

A breakdown of first-day classes by county.

  • Tuesday — 26 districts open in Nassau County; 17 in Suffolk*
  • Wednesday — 25 districts in Nassau; 42 in Suffolk*
  • Thursday — Five districts in Nassau; eight in Suffolk

*William Floyd district opens classes in grades K-9 Tuesday and grades 10-12 Wednesday.

SOURCE: Long Island school districts

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