High school students who want to graduate with concentrations in technical courses or certain other areas of study can get a waiver from the need to pass one of their Regents history exams -- the biggest change in the state's diploma requirements in 20 years.
The landmark shift, which takes effect with this spring's graduating class, won unanimous state Board of Regents approval Monday. Most educational organizations across the state supported it, as did many business leaders who believe students need more flexibility in preparing for college and careers.
"There are lots of ways to be successful in adult life," said Robert Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, one of many educational groups endorsing the change. "There ought to be more than one way to pursue a diploma, which is a passport to adult life."
Fierce opposition came from a Long Island group representing social studies teachers and supervisors, who said students' historical knowledge and understanding of national and international events could be diluted. Some individual teachers endorsed the extra leeway.
The vote by the Regents, who set graduation requirements statewide, was the culmination of more than two years of discussion and debate about the issue known as "alternative pathways" to diplomas.
State Education Department officials, who report to the Regents, said the shift in approach will encourage more teens to stay in school while pursuing a combination of academic and practical studies that lead to jobs.
"This allows kids to pursue their passion -- something that leads to greater participation and graduation results," said Chuck Szuberla, assistant state commissioner for school operations.
Regents gave tentative approval to the change in October.
New York State in recent years has required all high school students to pass five Regents exams to graduate. Those tests cover coursework in English, math, science, United States history and world history.
Numerous educational and business leaders have complained that the exam requirements put too much emphasis on preparation for college alone, and discouraged students from taking occupational courses of the type offered by regional BOCES and many local high schools. Analysts also noted that New York is one of only a few states that mandated two social studies exams for graduation.
The new waivers alter that, allowing students to opt out of one Regents exam -- either in U.S. History and Government, or in Global History. In exchange, those students will complete a sequence of technical or occupational courses leading to a nationally approved job skills certification test, or can choose a concentration in humanities, STEM studies, the arts or a foreign language.
Details of the arts concentration still must be settled.
Regents emphasized the action does not mean the board is ignoring the importance of the study of history. The newly approved package stipulates that all high school students will complete courses in both U.S. History and Government and Global History. Until now, teenagers were required to pass exams in both subjects, but not necessarily coursework.
The Long Island Council for the Social Studies, representing 1,100 teachers and supervisors, has acknowledged that the new course requirements will be beneficial, but has denounced the granting of exam waivers.
"Students are not being held accountable for the history of their country," said Gloria Sesso, the council's co-president. "When they're not held accountable, they're not going to take it seriously, and they're not going to learn it."
Last month, the concept of waivers was criticized by the American Historical Association, the world's largest organization of professional historians.
New pathways to a diploma
The Board of Regents on Monday approved these "alternative pathways" to high school 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.Humanities
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.
-- JOHN HILDEBRAND