Melinda Person, president of the New York State United Teachers...

Melinda Person, president of the New York State United Teachers union, said students should be allowed "multiple pathways" to graduate. Credit: El-Wise Noisette for NYSUT

As New York State heads toward an overhaul of high school graduation requirements, an influential teachers union is urging that any changes in the system include reduced emphasis on Regents exams.

Melinda Person, president of the New York State United Teachers union, recently said in a public statement that students should be allowed “multiple pathways” to graduate — an approach that, logically, could leave Regents exams as options rather than requirements. Students currently must pass at least four exams to earn diplomas.

“Simply put, we need more teaching, less testing,” the union chief declared in a Sept. 20 op-ed published by Newsday. She went on to say “there should be multiple pathways to a diploma and more than one way to measure student learning.”

Emily Allen, a union spokesperson, did not respond Tuesday to Newsday’s request for more specifics on the organization’s position.

NYSUT is a union umbrella group representing nearly 700,000 working and retired teachers, along with other educators. Person and other organization leaders are stepping up their involvement in a statewide testing debate during a pivotal moment for forces on both sides.

On Nov. 13, a state advisory commission is scheduled to release its plan for revisions in graduation requirements, including Regents exams. Those tests have served as a barometer of student achievement in high schools since the 1870s.

One regional group that has campaigned strongly to keep testing standards in place is the Long Island Council for the Social Studies, representing about 1,100 school supervisors and teachers.

Gloria Sesso of Port Jefferson, the group’s co-president, challenged Person’s comments during a recent phone interview.

“More teaching, less testing is based on a false premise,” Sesso said. “How do you know what’s been taught if you’re not assessing? You have to hold learning accountable.”

Regents exams are written at a college-prep level and some advocates for change say this presents an unfair barrier to graduation for thousands of students who do not intend to pursue academics after high school. An additional argument is that students who don’t test well should be provided with alternate ways of demonstrating their abilities — for example, by writing research papers, delivering oral presentations or participating in civic improvement projects.

Defenders respond that standardized tests such as Regents exams should be maintained, because they are a time-tested means of measuring knowledge in a uniform way among large numbers of students.

The controversy over Regents exams goes back to the mid-1990s, when the state’s Board of Regents decided virtually all students — not just those bound for college — should pass the three-hour exams in order to graduate. The Regents are a 17-member panel representing different regions of the state, who are appointed by state legislators and set much of the state’s education policy.

At the time, state educational leaders described the move as one that would create a scholastic “gold standard.” Expanded testing also was seen as a means of eliminating much of the academic “tracking” that automatically separated students into different levels of classes based on perceived aptitude.

Disillusionment gradually set in, however, as New York’s graduation rates remained stuck at mediocre levels, despite the state’s relatively significant school spending. The latest federal rankings show, for example, that 84% of New York’s high school students graduated on schedule in 2019-20 — three percentage points below the national average and lower than figures in 26 other states.

In response, some have argued that New York should drop its “exit” exams as requirements, since only 10 other states follow that practice. Others note the 10 states include some major rivals with outstanding education programs — most notably, Massachusetts — adding that New York should fight to retain its position as an academic leader with rigorous testing.

Once the advisory commission delivers its recommendations, the Regents are empowered to decide what happens next. The commission was named in September 2022 by Education Commissioner Betty A. Rosa, a key figure in the state’s effort to review and revise graduation standards.

Federal law requires states to test students at least once in English, math and science during their high school years, so some form of testing is bound to continue.

However, Regents could opt, if they choose, to drop some or all of the exams as graduation requirements.

Roger Tilles of Manhasset, who represents Long Island on the Regents board, told Newsday it’s too early to predict how the issue will be decided. Tilles went on to say, however, that he looked forward to a future when less class time was spent drilling for tests, with more time left for subjects ranging from art and music to personal finance.

“It’s hard to assess some of these things that we’re talking about with the standard bubble tests,” Tilles said. “I think we’re moving toward more performance-based testing but we haven’t decided that yet.”

Tilles and other education officials agreed any changes approved could take several years to put into effect.

State education officials, who report to the Regents, acknowledged their review of Regents exams has led to some public criticism. Angelique Johnson-Dingle, a deputy state education commissioner, talked about this in a July interview on “Capitol Pressroom,” a public-radio program broadcast from Albany.

“You know, it’s interesting that when you look at and talk about making changes, there seems to be this insinuation that you may be lowering standards or you are not setting as high levels of expectation of rigor,” said Johnson-Dingle, who formerly served as superintendent of Western Suffolk BOCES. She added that, far from lowering expectations, the advisory commission’s work really was aimed at updating graduation requirements “to fit what our students need to be successful in the future world.”

Outside Albany, some analysts said talk about Regents exams and graduation standards could be missing a major point. Too many of the state’s younger students are struggling to master basic skills long before they reach the diploma stage, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, these experts said.

One leading education advocate, Jeff Smink, noted in a phone interview that only about a quarter of eighth-graders statewide scored proficient in math, according to the latest published test results from spring 2022. Smink is deputy director of Education Trust–New York, a Manhattan-based group that focuses on issues surrounding achievement of minority students who are economically disadvantaged.

“It’s the wrong discussion,” Smink said of the diploma debate. “Too many kids are not prepared to succeed, regardless of graduation requirements.”

As New York State heads toward an overhaul of high school graduation requirements, an influential teachers union is urging that any changes in the system include reduced emphasis on Regents exams.

Melinda Person, president of the New York State United Teachers union, recently said in a public statement that students should be allowed “multiple pathways” to graduate — an approach that, logically, could leave Regents exams as options rather than requirements. Students currently must pass at least four exams to earn diplomas.

“Simply put, we need more teaching, less testing,” the union chief declared in a Sept. 20 op-ed published by Newsday. She went on to say “there should be multiple pathways to a diploma and more than one way to measure student learning.”

Emily Allen, a union spokesperson, did not respond Tuesday to Newsday’s request for more specifics on the organization’s position.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • An influential statewide teachers union is calling for reduced emphasis on Regents exams, as the state approaches a crossroad in its efforts to revise high school graduation requirements.
  • The leader of the New York State United Teachers union says students should be offered alternative “pathways” to earn diplomas, rather than relying on standardized tests that have served as gatekeepers since the 1870s.
  • A state advisory commission is due in mid-November to issue recommendations on revamped graduation rules, adding its voice to a growing statewide debate.

NYSUT is a union umbrella group representing nearly 700,000 working and retired teachers, along with other educators. Person and other organization leaders are stepping up their involvement in a statewide testing debate during a pivotal moment for forces on both sides.

On Nov. 13, a state advisory commission is scheduled to release its plan for revisions in graduation requirements, including Regents exams. Those tests have served as a barometer of student achievement in high schools since the 1870s.

One regional group that has campaigned strongly to keep testing standards in place is the Long Island Council for the Social Studies, representing about 1,100 school supervisors and teachers.

Gloria Sesso of Port Jefferson, the group’s co-president, challenged Person’s comments during a recent phone interview.

“More teaching, less testing is based on a false premise,” Sesso said. “How do you know what’s been taught if you’re not assessing? You have to hold learning accountable.”

Regents exams are written at a college-prep level and some advocates for change say this presents an unfair barrier to graduation for thousands of students who do not intend to pursue academics after high school. An additional argument is that students who don’t test well should be provided with alternate ways of demonstrating their abilities — for example, by writing research papers, delivering oral presentations or participating in civic improvement projects.

Defenders respond that standardized tests such as Regents exams should be maintained, because they are a time-tested means of measuring knowledge in a uniform way among large numbers of students.

Controversy dates to mid-1990s

The controversy over Regents exams goes back to the mid-1990s, when the state’s Board of Regents decided virtually all students — not just those bound for college — should pass the three-hour exams in order to graduate. The Regents are a 17-member panel representing different regions of the state, who are appointed by state legislators and set much of the state’s education policy.

At the time, state educational leaders described the move as one that would create a scholastic “gold standard.” Expanded testing also was seen as a means of eliminating much of the academic “tracking” that automatically separated students into different levels of classes based on perceived aptitude.

Disillusionment gradually set in, however, as New York’s graduation rates remained stuck at mediocre levels, despite the state’s relatively significant school spending. The latest federal rankings show, for example, that 84% of New York’s high school students graduated on schedule in 2019-20 — three percentage points below the national average and lower than figures in 26 other states.

In response, some have argued that New York should drop its “exit” exams as requirements, since only 10 other states follow that practice. Others note the 10 states include some major rivals with outstanding education programs — most notably, Massachusetts — adding that New York should fight to retain its position as an academic leader with rigorous testing.

Once the advisory commission delivers its recommendations, the Regents are empowered to decide what happens next. The commission was named in September 2022 by Education Commissioner Betty A. Rosa, a key figure in the state’s effort to review and revise graduation standards.

Federal law requires states to test students at least once in English, math and science during their high school years, so some form of testing is bound to continue.

However, Regents could opt, if they choose, to drop some or all of the exams as graduation requirements.

Roger Tilles of Manhasset, who represents Long Island on the Regents board, told Newsday it’s too early to predict how the issue will be decided. Tilles went on to say, however, that he looked forward to a future when less class time was spent drilling for tests, with more time left for subjects ranging from art and music to personal finance.

“It’s hard to assess some of these things that we’re talking about with the standard bubble tests,” Tilles said. “I think we’re moving toward more performance-based testing but we haven’t decided that yet.”

Tilles and other education officials agreed any changes approved could take several years to put into effect.

Roger Tilles, of Manhasset, represents Long Island on the state...

Roger Tilles, of Manhasset, represents Long Island on the state Regents board. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Any changes could take years

State education officials, who report to the Regents, acknowledged their review of Regents exams has led to some public criticism. Angelique Johnson-Dingle, a deputy state education commissioner, talked about this in a July interview on “Capitol Pressroom,” a public-radio program broadcast from Albany.

“You know, it’s interesting that when you look at and talk about making changes, there seems to be this insinuation that you may be lowering standards or you are not setting as high levels of expectation of rigor,” said Johnson-Dingle, who formerly served as superintendent of Western Suffolk BOCES. She added that, far from lowering expectations, the advisory commission’s work really was aimed at updating graduation requirements “to fit what our students need to be successful in the future world.”

Outside Albany, some analysts said talk about Regents exams and graduation standards could be missing a major point. Too many of the state’s younger students are struggling to master basic skills long before they reach the diploma stage, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, these experts said.

One leading education advocate, Jeff Smink, noted in a phone interview that only about a quarter of eighth-graders statewide scored proficient in math, according to the latest published test results from spring 2022. Smink is deputy director of Education Trust–New York, a Manhattan-based group that focuses on issues surrounding achievement of minority students who are economically disadvantaged.

“It’s the wrong discussion,” Smink said of the diploma debate. “Too many kids are not prepared to succeed, regardless of graduation requirements.”

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