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Proposal would make it easier for NY students to pass Regents exams

High school students wearing masks sit several feet apart at desks in a classroom,

High school students work at their desks. State officials are considering making it significantly easier for New York students to appeal low scores on Regents exams as the pandemic continues to impact schools.

Rich Legg / Getty Images

Update: The Board of Regents approved this proposal on Tuesday, May 17.

After a third school year disrupted by the pandemic, New York state officials want to allow students to more easily appeal failing scores on Regents exams, starting this spring through the end of next school year. 

Students now must earn a 65 or higher to pass Regents exams, which are required to earn a high school diploma. But students could appeal scores of 50-64 if they pass the related course under a proposal expected to come before the state Board of Regents Tuesday. If approved, the change would go into effect immediately, likely allowing more students to meet graduation requirements.

The changes are meant to soften the blow COVID has had on schools across the state this year and would mark the third year in a row that officials have changed rules around New York’s high school exit exams. The pandemic has “continued to have adverse impacts on students and schools,” and that instruction has “varied significantly across the state,” state officials wrote in a memo about the proposed changes.

New York is approaching a “high alert” level for COVID with hospitalizations on the rise, and it’s possible schools could see yet another major disruption to student and staff attendance. During the omicron variant surge after winter break, cases skyrocketed among New York City schools students and staff, disrupting schooling and leaving children at home with little to no instruction. 

While attendance improved after that surge, chronic absenteeism in New York City could reach the worst levels since at least 2000 if attendance rates don’t improve. 

The temporary changes proposed Monday make it significantly easier for students to appeal failing scores. That may ultimately help to once again boost the state’s graduation rate, which was on the rise before the pandemic but has continued to increase as Regents have been canceled or decoupled from graduation requirements. 

Currently, students can appeal failing scores of 60-64, with some exceptions for students learning English as a new language and students with disabilities. But there are a slew of other restrictions: Students can only appeal a score if they’ve failed the exam at least twice, have passed the related course, have received extra academic help in the subject, and are recommended for an exemption by a teacher or department chair. Students can only appeal scores on two of their five Regents exams that are required to graduate. Under the proposal, students must pass the related course but don’t need to meet any of these other requirements through next school year. Their parent or guardian, however, may refuse a granted appeal if they want the student to receive more instruction.

Regents exams have been a long debated topic in New York, one of about a dozen states that administers a high school exit exam. State officials are rethinking the role of the exam and will launch a pilot program looking at new ways to earn a diploma. In recent years, the Regents have made it easier to meet exam requirements by approving more pathways to graduation and lowering the score needed for an appeal. 

This will be the third school year that state officials have tweaked rules about Regents exams in response to the pandemic. State officials canceled the exams when the pandemic first hit in the 2019-2020 school year. In the 2020-2021 school year, students were not required to pass exams in order to graduate as they currently are, and most Regents exams were canceled. January exams were canceled this year during the omicron surge.

Regent Roger Tilles, who represents Long Island, criticized the department’s decision to continue with the exams this year and said they are “twisting like a pretzel” to make the exams work instead of rethinking how they are being administered this year. 

“Virtually everything on Long Island is being disrupted fairly drastically, and I’ve talked to a number of school superintendents, and their numbers are very high of kids who are out of school right now, and I think we ought to reevaluate how we are re-administering the Regents,” Tilles said. 

Asked why the state didn’t instead remove the exams as graduation requirements, a spokesperson pointed to the proposal memo, which said the exams are important “as one of multiple measures of student achievement in the 2021-2022 school year.” The tests can help determine whether students are achieving state learning standards, the memo said, and help state officials determine steps “to foster equity and improve educational opportunities.”

But decades of research shows these exams don’t better-prepare students for life after high school and, in fact, can harm students of color from low-income families.

One Brooklyn high school principal said he expected the state to expand safety net options for students this year, as rates of chronic absenteeism have shot up and COVID has continued to disrupt instruction with many students and staff forced to isolate at home.

But the principal, who requested anonymity to speak freely, questioned the decision to make the exams easier to pass rather than canceling them.

“The breadth of material tested is so large that every teacher who teaches Regents feels that content pressure at the best of times,” the principal said. “This year, so many students are out so many days, the crunch becomes exacerbated.”

Even though the exams will be easier to pass, students still will face pressure to score well above a 50, as low Regents scores typically appear on student transcripts, the principal said.

“On top of all the trauma and challenges they’ve been through over the past two years, I’m not sure what the state is hoping to accomplish by having the Regents exams at all,” he added. 

Alex Zimmerman contributed. 

Reema Amin is a reporter covering New York City schools with a focus on state policy and English language learners. Contact Reema at ramin@chalkbeat.org.

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