New York's Board of Regents, which sets much of the...

New York's Board of Regents, which sets much of the state's educational policy, is embarked on a re-examination of graduation requirements, including the use of exams. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Only eight states, including New York, still mandate that high school seniors pass standardized tests in order to earn diplomas, according to a new report that reflects a widening debate over so-called "exit" exams and whether they should continue to be used as graduation requirements.

The report, issued by FairTest, a Brooklyn-based advocacy group, finds that the number of states requiring such tests for high school graduates dropped from a high of 27 in the mid-1990s to 11 in 2019 to eight for the current school year. FairTest leaders contend that the falling numbers reveal flaws in the testing system.

"Increasingly, policymakers have recognized that standardized test hurdles for high school graduation do not improve educational outcomes," said Harry Feder, the group's executive director. "Instead, they harm thousands of young people who either drop out after failing an exit exam, or are forced out of school without high school diplomas despite completing all their classroom work." 

In response, defenders say exit exams remain useful in determining whether students have a solid foundation in academic subjects such as English, history, algebra and science, and whether those students are prepared to enter college or the workplace. Regents exams, which have been used on Long Island and across the state for more than 140 years, are widely regarded as a model of that approach. 

Students generally must pass four or five Regents exams in...

Students generally must pass four or five Regents exams in order to receive diplomas, but that requirement could change dramatically. Credit: Howard Schnapp

"New York has long been a leader in setting rigorous standards for graduation," said Jeff Smink, deputy director of The Education Trust-New York, a nonprofit group based in Manhattan. "If we want to continue being a leader when it comes to making sure students are ready to succeed in college or in careers, then getting rid of that requirement is not necessarily going to get us there." 

The Education Trust is a research and advocacy organization that focuses on the needs of impoverished students. 

New York's Board of Regents, which sets much of the state's education policy, is embarked on a re-examination of graduation requirements, including the use of exams. An appointed "blue ribbon" panel of school superintendents, teachers, parents and others is due to deliver recommendations in the summer of 2024, followed by final Regents action.

Under current rules, students generally must pass four or five Regents exams in order to receive diplomas. But that requirement could change dramatically, depending on what Regents decide to do. 

One hint of their direction surfaced last month, when Roger Tilles of Manhasset, who represents Long Island on the state board, met in Old Bethpage with representatives of the Long Island Council for the Social Studies.

Tilles confirmed at the meeting that one potential option would be to do away with the "high stakes" nature of the tests — that is, to eliminate the rules that make passing exams a condition for graduation. 

Islandwide, educators are split on that issue, with many agreeing that graduation requirements need to be revised, while others support the traditional approach.

Brian Doelger, the school superintendent in Shelter Island, told Newsday on Friday that he felt the use of Regents exams "helps us follow the curricular standards set by the state."

Doelger also sits on the executive board of the regional social studies council. 

Some supporters of traditional testing also argue that New York State bears a particular responsibility to set high academic standards because it spends far more on K-12 education than other states — about $24,000 per student, according to the latest federal data.

Still others note that, while the number of states requiring exit exams is relatively small, it includes states such as Massachusetts, Illinois and Virginia that are major competitors.

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