Facebook Twitter
A student receives her diploma from Principal Brady Smith during the James Baldwin School's graduation in June 2019.

A student receives her diploma from Principal Brady Smith during the James Baldwin School’s graduation in June 2019.

Alex Zimmerman/Chalkbeat

What should it take to graduate in New York? A new committee will make recommendations

The question of what it should take to earn a high school diploma in New York will be the subject of a major discussion over the next year among state education policymakers, educators, and community groups. 

Officials at Monday’s Board of Regents meeting announced the creation of a blue ribbon commission to consider potential changes to graduation requirements. 

The members, who haven’t been selected, will collect feedback from educators and other community members and will make recommendations in around a year. One of the major questions that the commission will study cuts at the heart of what it means to graduate in New York: How much does passing the state’s vaunted Regents exams improve graduation rates, student achievement, and college readiness? 

The commission’s findings could result in a range of changes, including moving beyond just taking exit exams, and will be one of the critical discussions the Regents take up over the next year as Commissioner MaryEllen Elia plans to leave her post next month, a move also announced on Monday. 

New York requires students to pass five Regents exams to earn a diploma, in addition to specific courses, though Regents have in recent years expanded the ways students can fulfill this requirement, which have contributed to New York City’s rising graduation rates. New York is one of 11 states that requires high school exit exams, even in the face of decades of research that shows these assessments don’t better-prepare graduates for life after high school and can harm certain students, such as students of color from low-income families. 

Chancellor Betty Rosa, who first raised the need to study the matter in February, acknowledged how complex the discussion will be and signaled that the process could meet resistance. 

“There are people that want to hold onto things and not necessarily take a leap and make change — and change is not easy for most people,” Rosa said. 

For many, Regent Roger Tilles said, the very nature of graduation requirements has been a concern for years. The Coalition of Multiple Pathways to a Diploma, a 70-member coalition of education advocacy groups, educators, and families, wants the state to establish alternative routes to a diploma. 

“NYSED and the Board of Regents are raising important questions about the urgency of ensuring that all students graduate with the skills to succeed in college, careers and active citizenship, and the need for an inclusive and deliberate process,” said Ian Rosenblum, executive director of advocacy group Education Trust New York. “New York should continue to explore multiple pathways that incorporate high standards and strong supports for all groups of students.”

The New York State School Boards Association also supports the effort so that the state can ensure “how to measure academic excellence in the diplomas that we hand out so that all of the students” can succeed, said spokesperson Al Marlin in a statement. 

The commission will study four big questions: what should children know and be able to do before they graduate; how should they be able to demonstrate their knowledge; to what degree does requiring the passage of Regents exams improve student achievement, graduation rates and college readiness; and what other measures of achievement can signal high school completion. 

Some Regents said the proposed one-year timeline to form the commission and come up with potential changes was unrealistic. “I don’t think we can make this decision by the fall of 2020 — there is too much at stake,” said Regent Judith Johnson. 

And others signaled early concern over the work the commission will undertake — specifically on how changing the exit-exam requirement could impact students’ futures. Vice Chancellor T. Andrew Brown said if they’re “not careful,” they could address pathways to earning a diploma but ignore how that could affect students’ access to opportunities after high school. 

“I hope that when we talk about pathways, we are building in structures to avoid the tracking of students who arguably need greater opportunities,” Brown said.