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Proposal would help NY students who miss or fail Regents earn diplomas

A group of students take a test in a classroom with a teacher walking by.

Students who pass their course this year but fail or miss a Regents exam due to health reasons could still earn a diploma under a new state proposal.

Chris Ryan / Getty Images

State education officials are planning to ease graduation requirements for students scheduled to graduate this month who faced schooling disruptions due to COVID or other medical reasons.

A proposal from the State Board of Regents — expected to be approved Tuesday — would allow students who passed their course this year but failed or missed the corresponding Regents exam due to illness, injury or quarantine to request a “special determination” to graduate with a “local” diploma instead of a Regents diploma.

Typically, only students with disabilities who have individualized learning plans have been eligible for the state’s less-rigorous local diploma. Of last year’s graduates, roughly 870, or just 1% of students, earned a local diploma, according to state data.

The change is one more way the board is continuing to grapple with how to hold schools and students accountable for this year’s coursework while also recognizing the continued impact of the pandemic on teaching and learning. For the first half of the year, New York City schools were quarantining thousands of children when positive cases arose in their classrooms. Even after that policy changed, many students and teachers tested positive for coronavirus, leading to high absenteeism rates for both.  

Nearly 240,000 COVID cases have been reported among New York City students and staffers this school year, according to public data as of June 12. Additionally, families have reported that rates of anxiety have gone up, keeping some children out of schools. Mental health-related issues may also be affecting seniors as they sit for Regents exams, as they affected students in lower grades facing state English and math tests earlier this spring. (Regents exams are being administered from June 15 to June 24.)

The move comes on the heels of last month’s vote to allow students to more easily appeal failing scores on Regents exams taken this spring or through the end of next school year. Earlier this year, amid the first wave of the omicron surge, the board canceled the January Regents exams. (The latest proposal is for students who are not able to appeal their scores.)

In allaying possible concerns from parents about how the recent Regents policy changes might affect college admissions, New York education Commissioner Betty Rosa noted that most states don’t have exit exams for diplomas. New York is one of about a dozen states that administers high school exit exams. 

Rosa said during a Board of Regents meeting on Monday that teachers are “constantly” assessing student coursework throughout the year, and “you often hear teachers say, you invalidate all that work that’s been done by assuming that this one test has a higher profile.”

This is the third school year that the pandemic prompted state education officials to change policies around the Regents exams. They canceled the exams in the 2019-2020 school year, after the pandemic first hit, and last year, students were not required to pass exams to graduate as most Regents, except those required under federal law (Algebra I, English, living environment, and earth science), were canceled.

Conversations about rethinking the role of the Regents exams, however, pre-date the pandemic. The state is launching a pilot program looking at new ways to earn diplomas. Officials have also approved previous efforts to create more pathways to graduation and plan to keep those conversations going.

“In a lot of ways, what has emerged because of the pandemic is really late news. We, prior to the pandemic, were down this road of graduation measures,” said state Chancellor Lester Young Jr. “The most important thing we can do as a board is to get this right.”

Juliet Eisenstein, a staff attorney with Advocates For Children’s Postsecondary Readiness Project, was hopeful that the board would continue to look at moving away from requiring students to pass exams in order to graduate as most other states have done.

“This proposed amendment is a step towards recognizing that the Regents exams present a barrier to diplomas for many students who are otherwise ready to graduate high school,” she said.

Amy Zimmer is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat New York. Contact Amy at azimmer@chalkbeat.org.

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