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Don't dumb-down New York's high school diploma

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If the goal of New York's high school graduation standards were to grant all students a diploma regardless of their level of mastery, the state could simply hand sheepskins  out to anyone who made it to the final day of 12th grade.

Unfortunately, that's what some education officials, teachers and parents want to do. But a New York State high school diploma has traditionally denoted a significant educational accomplishment, and seeking it has induced students to achieve for generations.

The state's Regents exams have been administered since 1865, and they have been a rigorous yet reasonable part of New York's high school graduation requirements for all students since 1995. Before that, students that districts determined to be college-bound took Regents exams while others took easier Regents competency tests. The two-pronged system let districts steer many students, often minorities or from poor households, toward easy coursework, low achievement  and a substandard education. It was a cynical and destructive hierarchy  that shortchanged too many children, and the state was right to move to a single, more rigorous set of requirements, and to push students to pass Regents exams in five subjects to graduate. 

That doesn't mean these tests, devised by New York teachers who are experts in their subjects, have to be a primary graduation requirement until the end of time. But if they're going to be replaced, it must be with equally rigorous and objective hurdles, and that's not the trend of recent education policy in New York.

For the last several years, there has been increasing pressure to relax or erase the requirement that most graduates in New York must pass five Regents exams with scores of 65 or better. In mid-July there was a lengthy and lively Board of Regents debate over whether that requirement ought to be altered or abandoned.

In the end, Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa said she wants the state to "rethink" graduation requirements, a process that will soon begin and could take two years. But  the raw scores required to pass the Regents exams are already shockingly low. Students are never well-served by lax standards and the state's diploma requirements   have recently been lowered in several ways:

  • In 2014, the Board of Regents approved an "alternative pathways" approach to graduation that reduced the number of Regents exams a student had to pass from five to four if he or she completed a sequence of occupational and technical courses instead.
  • In 2017, the Board of Regents agreed to allow special-education students to earn a local high school diploma, which has different criteria from the Regents diploma, without passing any Regents exams, as long as they'd passed their courses and their school district superintendents determined they were proficient in English and math.
  • Also in 2017, the state canceled a policy set to take effect for the Class of 2022 requiring students get a 75 on their English Regents exam and an 85 on the math exam to get their Regents diplomas, considered the benchmark for college and career readiness.

It's also important to understand that the Regents scores required to graduate are lower than they sound, because raw scores are converted to higher exam scores. To get a passing 65 on January's geometry Regents exam, for example, students had to get 36 percent of questions correct. On algebra I, a raw score of 31 percent converted to the needed 65. And in English, 57 percent correct earned a passing 65.  That level of proficiency is not too much to ask.

New York is one of just 11 states that use exit exams as a condition of graduation, so they are not an absolute necessity. And some suggestions on how to change the requirements — such as using nationally normed ACT or SAT exams to judge proficiency in English and math — merit consideration. But any push to drop test requirements altogether and base graduation strictly on grades and work portfolios is dangerous: Such evaluations can be erratic and unreliable.

The high school graduation rate in New York is 80 percent, but in 2014, the last time the state released its "aspirational performance measure" showing the percentage of seniors who were considered ready for careers or college, that number was 38 percent. Unprepared graduates must take remedial courses when they get to college, increasing their costs, and often drop out. The job market is no kinder to unprepared workers, and industry leaders constantly bemoan the lack of skills exhibited by young job applicants.

A high school diploma bestowed by New York must be a measure of significant accomplishment, with its rigor an inducement for both students and teachers to shine. Weakening our standards would benefit no one. It particularly would harm struggling students who need the resources and urgency that go with fighting to clear tough hurdles, not the shortchanging that comes with meeting lowered expectations.


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