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Senior Deputy Commissioner Ken Wagner, left, says he wants to establish new graduation requirements based less on test scores and more on advanced coursework.

Senior Deputy Commissioner Ken Wagner, left, says he wants to establish new graduation requirements based less on test scores and more on advanced coursework.

Geoff Decker

Regents say they’re open to easing test-based grad requirements to favor coursework

New York’s high school graduation requirements are getting a fresh look from state education officials, who on Monday floated the idea of allowing students to earn diplomas by completing advanced courses or projects. 

That idea, which earned a lengthy discussion at the Board of Regents meeting in Albany, would allow Advanced Placement tests or other advanced work to replace the required end-of-year English and algebra exams. While no formal proposals are on the table yet, the discussion is the latest sign that the state’s current standards for earning a diploma, which have been in place for just two years, could be short-lived.

“There are many paths up the same mountain,” said Senior Deputy Commissioner Ken Wagner.

The debate comes as the current set of graduation requirements has been simultaneously criticized as setting a bar that is both too low to ensure students are ready for college and too high for students with unique needs.

Since 2012, students have had to score a 65 or higher on five Regents exams in core subject to earn a diploma, a cutoff score that was raised from 55 in past years.

And state officials have already made plans to raise the bar further. The class of 2022, this year’s fifth graders, will need to pass new, tougher English and algebra Regents exams that are aligned to Common Core-aligned learning standards. Wagner said a passing score on those exams will be equivalent to scoring a 75 or 80 on the exams administered last year, which is the minimum score that students must earn to be considered ready for college-level courses. Last year, just 32 percent of city students reached that bar.

But Wagner said the scores on those exams have served as a crude measurement for college readiness and do not allow students with poor test-taking skills much room to succeed. A significant number of students each year do not meet the college-ready bar on Regents exams, he said, but go onto to complete more advanced courses — illustrating a type of persistence that is important in college.

Wagner and Regents members discussed a few kinds of advanced coursework that could better measure those skills on Monday, including passing Advanced Placement courses, succeeding in International Baccalaureate programs, or completing in-depth projects like the work portfolios that replace Regents exams for students who attend schools in the New York Performance Standards Consortium. Another example was work done in dual credit programs, in which college-level courses are offered to students while they’re still in high school through partnerships with higher education institutions.

Shifting away from using Common Core-aligned tests as a graduation requirement could also help avoid another testing-related backlash. Using them makes for a tough choice: flunking students who don’t pass and risk lowering graduation rates, or watering down the standards themselves so that more (or similar numbers) of students reach the bar. Researcher Anne Hyslop recommended this summer that New York, which is among 24 states where passing a test is required for graduation, should change its requirements to avoid huge drops in graduation rates for that reason.

The state has also eased graduation requirements slightly in specific cases recently. Immigrants who moved to the country while in high school can score a 55 on the English exam and still graduate. In addition, students this year are able to replace a Regents exam with an arts, humanities, science, bilingual, or career and technical education assessment.

Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said that the introduction of tougher Common Core-aligned state tests for elementary and middle-schoolers had made her comfortable with the idea of easing graduation requirements. She pointed to a new report that cited New York as having the nation’s highest math and reading standards as compared to an international exam, and said she believed more students would be prepared for college in the coming years.

“If we were still monkeying around at low standards, I wouldn’t even think about doing this kind of flexibility conversation,” said Tisch, who said districts have repeatedly asked for more flexibility around graduation requirements.