High school students statewide who want to graduate with an emphasis on career and technical education would be able to take one less Regents exam under a landmark change that won unanimous Board of Regents approval Monday.
Those students could opt to skip a Regents exam in either Global History or U.S. History and Government in exchange for completing a sequence of occupational or technical courses, under the controversial new approach known as "alternative pathways" to graduation.
The changes, if Regents give final approval in January as scheduled, would take effect with students who entered ninth grade in 2011 and are due to graduate in June.
The action marks the biggest change in New York graduation requirements since 1995, when state education officials first announced plans to require virtually all students to earn Regents diplomas. That meant pupils had to pass state exams in five academic subjects: English, math, science, Global History and U.S. History.
Opponents of change -- most notably, a group representing social studies teachers on Long Island -- have contended that exam waivers would erode academic standards and students' preparation for citizenship.
State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. and other state school leaders rejected that argument during an afternoon news conference, saying providing more options to teenage students would encourage them to remain in school and graduate. They added that career-oriented courses would challenge students by requiring that they pass tests based on job skills.
"We're very excited about today's action -- it gives us a feeling that we're tapping into students' interest," King said.
Regents voted 15-0, with two members absent, to authorize state Education Department staff to work up a final draft of regulatory changes.
Shifting focus for some
Supporters of alternative pathways, including administrators of regional BOCES agencies that provide occupational training, said students wishing to take job-oriented courses shouldn't be overloaded with academic courses. Any students getting a waiver still would have to pass Regents exams in English, math, science and one of the two history courses.
"We have high school juniors and seniors spending half a day every day in very credible high-quality training," said Michael Mensch, chief operating officer of Western Suffolk BOCES. "We are happy to see that being recognized by the state as a viable alternative."
Mark Bender, a Board of Cooperative Educational Services graduate working as shop foreman at an auto dealership in Bay Shore, said the new waiver system seems appropriate.
"Some people aren't the greatest in school, and they want to prepare for a career," Bender said.
Waivers would be granted only to students who passed alternative tests, such as assessments of job skills approved by various industry groups. Examples include certification as a Student Electronics Technician, developed by the Electronic Technicians Association, and the Carpentry Level 1 Certification, sponsored by the National Center for Construction Education and Research.
Initially, the alternate pathways revisions would affect relatively small numbers of students. Last spring, 8,380 high school graduates statewide -- 4.67 percent of the 179,610 total -- earned diplomas with a "CTE" endorsement, signifying completion of career and technical education courses.
In Nassau and Suffolk counties, the percentage was smaller. Only 759 graduates last spring, or 2.17 percent of the 35,037 total, received diplomas with CTE endorsements.
State school officials envision much broader options for students than those on the technical side alone. Under the program, teenagers also would be allowed to waive a history exam in exchange for completing extra courses and assessments in the humanities, math, science or the arts.
Worry about social studies
The proposal has alarmed history educators, who warn students are in danger of losing their civic heritage. They add that the waiver system threatens to revive student "tracking," in which some are assigned to strictly academic courses, and others to occupational training.
The Long Island Council for the Social Studies, representing hundreds of teachers and administrators, has lobbied fiercely against the changes and has urged war veterans and others to join the campaign.
Brian Dowd, the council's co-president, described the Regents' action as the latest in a series of moves that have downgraded the status of history instruction in public schools. In 2001, the federal government mandated annual testing in reading and math, but not in social studies, in grades 3-8. Albany officials eliminated state social studies tests in grades 5 and 8 in 2011.
"They keep telling us, 'Don't worry, four years of social studies will still be required in high school,' " Dowd said, referring to recent statements by King and other state officials. "But social studies is nearly dead at the elementary level."
Assemb. Charles Lavine (D-Glen Cove) wrote last week to King, noting the concerns of social studies educators that history lessons about World War II are being marginalized and that granting waivers from Regents history exams would exacerbate the situation.
"As we lose this generation of Americans who waged that conflict and then came home to reinvent this country, it will become more difficult to understand ourselves and the world around us," Lavine wrote.
A spokesman for the commissioner, Dennis Tompkins, said that his office agreed that the history of World War II is important, noting that all students still would be required to take courses covering that historical period, even if they did not take one of the Regents history exams.
Roger Tilles of Great Neck, who represents Long Island on the Regents board, said he had received more than 450 emails in recent days from local school officials and others opposed to or favoring alternative pathways.
"I've told the social studies teachers until I'm blue in the face that they're not going to lose one class in either Global History or U.S. History," Tilles said. With Michael R. Ebert
Plans for 'alternative pathways'
The Board of Regents tentatively approved these "alternative pathways" to diplomas:
Career and technical (CTE).
Complete a sequence of technical or occupational courses and pass a skills-certification test in that job field. The state has approved tests in 13 fields, ranging from culinary work to graphic design, and is reviewing other assessments. Students also may pass a technically aligned science test.
Complete course concentration in literature or social studies, along with an extra exam in one of those areas. Exam choices would include those offered in college-level Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs.
Science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
Complete a course concentration in one of those fields and pass an additional exam. Choices would include Regents exams in geometry and advanced algebra, along with college-level tests in calculus.
Complete a course concentration in performing arts, visual arts or technical arts and a state-approved assessment in one of those fields. A state-appointed panel will review potential assessments.
Languages other than English.
Complete course sequence and exam in another language.