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State education officials call for revamping high school Regents exam system

T. Andrew Brown, left, Regents vice chancellor, speaks

T. Andrew Brown, left, Regents vice chancellor, speaks to opponents of student vaccinations in the hallway during a meeting at the State Education Department on Monday in Albany. Photo Credit: Hans Pennink

New York State would overhaul its high-school graduation requirements, affecting hundreds of thousands of students, and rethink its use of traditional Regents exams, under an ambitious plan outlined at a state Board of Regents meeting in Albany.

A timetable for completion of the overhaul, put forward by staff in the state Education Department, would be equally ambitious. It calls for appointment in September of a blue-ribbon commission to issue recommendations on revamped diploma standards the following fall.

The final decision on standards would be up to the Regents, a 17-member panel appointed by the State Legislature from around the state, which sets much of New York's education policy. 

One controversial part of the plan is the proposed reconsideration of Regents exams, which have been used in New York high schools in one form or another for more than 150 years. The exams, also known as exit tests because students must pass them to graduate, retain widespread public support in this state, but also face growing skepticism.

Under current rules, most students must pass four or five such exams with scores of 65 or better in order to graduate with Regents diplomas. Those who cannot meet that mark must settle for local diplomas or certificates of completion.

State education officials have not yet put forward specific ideas for changes in this system. But study materials issued to the Regents over the weekend by Education Department staff raise questions about the system — stating, for example, that  New York is one of only two states in the nation requiring passage of five exit exams.

"We can ask all of you: Do you have Regents exams? It's a part of our history," Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia told the Regents board at a Monday morning meeting. "Do we keep the exams, or do we open this up?"

One Regents board member, Roger Tilles of Great Neck, who represents Long Island, said he for one favored a full-fledged inquiry on the issue.

"I think we need to start discussing this from scratch and not with questions such as, 'Gee, how many Regents exams do we really need? Could we do with three or four?'" Tilles said. 

Another board member, Catherine Collins of Buffalo, invoked the spirit of tradition.

"I love the Regents science diploma that I received," Collins said. "I hope we don't get rid of that. It's quite an honor."

Later in the day, Commissioner Elia announced her resignation in August, saying she had decided to accept an appointment with a national firm that deals with students. Regents said the decision took them by surprise, but a spokeswoman for the Education Department, Emily DeSantis, said the plan to review diploma standards was expected to proceed on schedule. 

One reason for the review is a growing dissatisfaction with the number of students graduating across the state. New York spends about $24,500 per student on public education — the highest figure in the country. But its annual statewide graduate rate hovers around 80 percent, behind such states as New Jersey with 91 percent, Massachusetts with 88 percent and Connecticut with 88 percent.

The average for Nassau and Suffolk counties is 88 percent. 

Some advocates for change have argued that de-emphasis on pencil-and-paper exams could encourage more students to complete their educations. They maintain that the state could look at increasing the number of "pathways" for earning diplomas — for example, by allowing students to demonstrate their knowledge through artistic endeavors or civic participation.

"Not every one wants to be a rocket scientist," said Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa of the Bronx. "You and I have met people who say, 'I'm going to quit school. I want to work on Broadway." 

Later, Rosa took issue with the Education Department's call for a timetable lasting about a year, saying she favored a more deliberative approach, akin to a "deep dive" rather than "snorkeling." Rosa added, in response to a reporter's question, that she felt a two-year schedule would be appropriate. 

Other board members said that abandoning New York’s current system of having most students taking Regents exams could result in a multi-level system.

This, they said, could resemble the old tracking systems, common a few decades ago, that funneled most minority students into nonacademic tracks that provided no preparation for college.

“If we’re not careful, we could expand pathways and narrow opportunities,” said Andrew Brown of Rochester, who serves as the Regents’ vice chancellor. “I know we’re all familiar with that word ‘tracking’ — it’s an ugly word.”

At the end of the hour-and-a-half debate on diploma standards, Robert Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, said the opinions expressed left him hopeful.

“They showed an appreciation for all aspects of this issue that have to be considered,” Lowry said.

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