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Will Regents exams go on? New York’s education officials are mum.

Alan Petersime/Chalkbeat

School milestones, from state tests in grades 3-8 to high school proms, have been canceled due to the coronavirus. But one rite of passage still hangs in the balance: Will students across New York State still have to pass exit exams to earn a diploma?

That question is gaining new urgency, as seniors anxiously wait to see if they will need to pass the Regents to graduate on time, educators consider how much effort to devote to test preparations, and schools face an April 10 deadline to order the tests.

The Regents exams are slated to be given in June and August, but calls to cancel the tests — five of which students typically must pass to graduate — have grown louder in recent days.

“My students have been asking me about it — especially my seniors who still need Regents to graduate,” said Melissa Dorcemus, a math teacher at Manhattan’s New Design High School. “They’re in a panic.”

The state’s education department has said little about its plans and declined to provide a timeline for making a decision. The city’s education department has instructed schools to order the exams as usual.

“Teachers did not have time to complete the curriculum and there’s absolutely no time for review,” said Mark Treyger, chairman of City Council’s education committee. “Students and teachers are all experiencing enough anxiety and should not be further burdened with unnecessary testing requirements.”

Still, the decision about whether to cancel the exams is fraught. If the tests go on, it’s unclear how they would be administered, given that students take them in school buildings on paper.

Even if schools reopened in time for the exams to be offered as they typically are in June and August, some educators worry that remote learning will put low-income students at a disadvantage and may lead to those students not graduating from high school on time.

On the other hand, if the tests are canceled, how would the state determine who is qualified to graduate?

“You have an entire system built around these Regents, and to get rid of them this year puts so many question marks,” Dorcemus added.

New York State is one of 11 states that require exit exams to graduate. The Regents exams were first authorized in 1876.

Although proponents of exit exams argue they are important to ensure high school diplomas mean something, studies have found exit exams generally don’t create better-prepared graduates and actually hurt some students, especially low-income students of color.

Bob Lowry, deputy director for advocacy and communication for the state Council of School Superintendents, said his organization hasn’t taken a position on the matter yet, but its members recognize how school closures could leave students unprepared for the exams.

“However much we wish it otherwise, given the disruptions, it may not be possible for some students to succeed on the tests to no fault of their own,” Lowry said.

Before the current outbreak, state officials have signaled a willingness to rethink graduation requirements for New York’s high schoolers, though the process of coming up with recommendations isn’t expected to wrap up until 2021.

[Related: What should it take to graduate? Inside the growing divide over whether to require New York’s vaunted Regents exams]

Mallory McDonald, a math teacher at Pelham Lab High School in the Bronx, said she is conflicted about whether the exams should be cancelled.

She noted that Regents prep typically gets more intense later in the school year and that the school’s Saturday prep sessions are on hold at the moment. She said it would be challenging to prepare some students for the exams remotely, should school buildings remain shuttered.

“Not all of our students always have access to technology,” she said. “Just completing work and submitting work is a challenge at the moment.”

On the other hand, McDonald said, “the advantage of still having [the exams] is students who are prepared to take it could still take it.”

Some educators said the decision to cancel or postpone the exams could reverberate far beyond the coronavirus era, especially if it gives momentum to those who argue the tests should be eliminated permanently.

“They would have their foot in the door,” said Dorcemus, the high school teacher, who supports eliminating the exams. “It might change New York education completely.”

Reema Amin contributed

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