Assemblyman Charles Lavine, left, talks with World War II veteran...

Assemblyman Charles Lavine, left, talks with World War II veteran Jack Hayne, center, and Vietnam veteran Charlie Armstrong at the Museum of American Armor in Old Bethpage, where they discussed the importance of keeping World War II history in in the school curriculum. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

The state's top school leaders are pushing ahead with a landmark change in high school graduation requirements for Regents history exams, amid protests by social studies teachers and their allies that it weakens academic scholarship and students' grounding in world and national events.

Merryl Tisch, chancellor of the state's Board of Regents, said Thursday that the policymaking group will vote Monday on the proposal known as "alternative pathways" to high school diplomas.

One of the plan's provisions would allow students to waive taking one of two Regents exams -- U.S. history or global history -- in exchange for completing a sequence of technical or occupational courses that culminate in a practical-skills test.

Approach raised earlier

The alternative-pathways approach first was raised more than two years ago and then set aside as the Regents grappled with other controversial issues, including the rollout of Common Core academic standards.

State education officials said most students probably would opt for skipping the global history exam..

Students still would be required to complete courses in both U.S. and global history, even if they later chose to waive one of the exams.

The change would be a major shift in state policy, first established in 1995. That year, state school leaders set the goal of having students pass Regents exams in five subjects: English, math, science and the two history courses.

Federal law requires assessments in English, math and science, leaving only the history exams subject to potential waivers.

Tisch, defending the proposed policy change, stressed the need to expand career training opportunities for more teenagers.

"We are hearing from all over that there is a need to prepare youngsters for 21st century job opportunities," she said. "Now, I don't believe most high school students know what career they want to follow. But I do know when we see an infusion of career training, we see better attendance, we see students who are better motivated."

The alternative approach is backed by state education groups representing school administrators, teachers and parents, as well as by major business organizations.

Teachers fault proposal

Social studies teachers and administrators, however, have launched a fierce counterattack on the proposed waivers, contending students' knowledge of the world and their ability to function as citizens would be lessened.

"We have come to a point where our nation's own history has been marginalized in the classroom and, with it, the means to understand ourselves and the world around us," said Gloria Sesso, co-president of the Long Island Council for the Social Studies. "America's heritage is being eliminated as a requirement for graduation."

Sesso and other critics contended that the alternative-pathways approach could revive a system of classroom "tracking," in which some students are funneled into strictly academic courses, while others are directed toward occupational training.

Waiver called a bad idea

Social studies advocates have recruited supporters to their cause. At a news conference Thursday in Old Bethpage, Sesso and her colleagues were joined by war veterans and a state lawmaker in denouncing the alternative-pathways plan.

The advocates' chosen site was the Museum of American Armor, where against a backdrop of Sherman and Patton tanks, the educators and military veterans bemoaned the scant time devoted in classrooms to World War II and other historical episodes.

Sesso quipped, for example, that "two or three minutes" might typically be spent discussing the June 1944 D-Day landing of Allied troops in Normandy, France.

Waiving history exams could only make things worse, she and others said.

"If we minimize the history of World War II, we're going to repeat the things that happened in World War II," said one participant, Charlie Armstrong, who is sergeant-at-arms of American Legion Post 1244 in Greenlawn.State Assemb. Charles Lavine (D-Glen Cove), who was at the news conference, sent a letter to state Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. questioning the proposed Regents exam waiver.

"Whether a student is in an occupational sequence or a purely academic sequence, we need to make sure that each and every one, as good citizens, can meet the challenges of the future," Lavine said.

Many educators on the Island believe the alternative-pathways approach would be beneficial for students. Supporters include administrators in the region's three BOCES, which provide much of the area's technical and occupational training.

"People are not saying that global history and U.S. history are not important courses to take," said Julie Lutz, chief operating officer of Eastern Suffolk BOCES. "They're just allowing more flexibility."

Lydia Begley, an associate superintendent at Nassau BOCES, noted that her agency provides training in such subjects as science research, where students with special aptitudes can delve into favorite topics in-depth.

"It's a chance for them to pursue a passion, rather than simply sitting down for another assessment," Begley said.

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