New York’s high school students have taken Regents exams since the 1870s. But they could become a relic of the past, as state officials start the final leg of a lengthy process to rethink the state’s graduation requirements.
In New York, students are generally required to earn 22 course credits in high school and take five Regents exams, including one each in English, math, science, and social studies. A 64-person commission charged with reviewing those requirements first met in October, and it is expected to present its recommendations to the New York State Board of Regents in the spring or summer of 2024.
The long-simmering discussion often centers on how New York is one of just 11 states that requires high school exit exams and that, despite a rising graduation rate, diploma requirements may be hurting the state’s most disadvantaged students.
“Regents exams have been the gold standard for over a century — and with good reason,” Commissioner Betty Rosa wrote in February 2019, when she was the chancellor of the Board of Regents, months before the state’s efforts began. “But our systems must be continually reviewed, renewed, and occasionally revised in order to best serve our students and the people of this great state.”
Policymakers and advocates are offering some clues for where they hope things will go. That includes alternatives to the Regents exams, removing the exams as part of graduation requirements, or even creating another type of exit exam.
Research shows that exit exams may increase dropout rates
Decades of research has shown that Regents exams don’t better prepare students for life after high school and can harm students of color from low-income families.
This was backed up in a review of academic literature presented to the Board of Regents in November and shared with the special commission tasked with recommending possible changes to the board. High school exit exams led to an increase in dropout rates and were more likely to impact graduation rates for low-income and Black students, the review found. However, one nationally representative study found that graduation rates only temporarily dipped after introducing high school exit exams.
Dropout rates can improve if students are offered “alternate pathways” that aren’t another high-stakes exam, such as the SAT or ACT, according to the review. The review also found that students enrolled in optional, high-level classes were more likely to do well on standardized tests and attend college. Additionally, graduation rates also increased in places that offered peer support programs and had mandatory attendance policies.
A pilot program offers hints at alternative graduation requirements
The Board of Regents was supposed to consider changes in 2021, but the pandemic delayed the process. As the board picked back up on that work last year — which included collecting feedback from communities across the state — officials showed an interest in alternatives to the Regents exams. On top of offering more options for completing exam requirements in recent years, the state education department launched a pilot program that offers students alternatives to Regents exams, such as projects and essays.
That program was, in part, inspired by New York City’s roughly three dozen consortium schools, which have been approved by the state to grant diplomas based on oral presentations, essays and research papers, science experiments, and higher-level math problem-solving instead of the five required Regents exams.
But policymakers may face some pushback to performance-based assessments.
Jeff Smink, deputy director at Education Trust-New York, which is represented on the blue ribbon commission, said his advocacy organization isn’t opposed to alternate pathways and understands that some students need other options to meet graduation requirements. But the group wants students to be assessed using an “objective measure.”
“The concern is that there just won’t be that accountability — districts can say students did this performance assessment, but there’s no objective measurement of whether students are prepared,” Smink said.
Policy tweaks in recent years have led school districts to rely disproportionately on less rigorous graduation requirements, according to Smink’s organization. For example, in 2019, Ed Trust found that 62% of the state’s increase in graduation rates was due to more students earning “local” diplomas, which is one of the state’s less rigorous graduation pathways. They also found that Black and low-income students were more likely to take less rigorous, career-focused pathways. (It had been easier for students to earn an older version of local diplomas through the 1990s, but that changed as the state phased in the Regents diploma requirements by 2015.)
Ed Trust is also concerned about how prepared students are for life after high school. Smink pointed to data that gives a glimpse of what happens after graduation. Of New York’s nearly 58,000 graduates in 2014 who received tuition assistance and attended college in the state, just 59% of those students graduated from college in six years. Only 29% of those students graduated from college on time.
Some advocates don’t want to wait for commission
Other advocates are pushing the board to scrap Regents exams from graduation requirements even before the commission comes up with its recommendations.
The Coalition for Multiple Pathways to a Diploma, a group that has pushed for changes to graduation requirements for more than a decade, compiled a 1,200-signature petition last month calling for the state to immediately remove Regents exams from diploma requirements. The coalition pointed to research about the negative effects of the exit exams.
“While the Commission’s work moves forward, the State should take action now to ensure that students who have passed all their courses are able to graduate from high school and pursue their postsecondary goals,” Julie Eisenstein, senior staff attorney for Advocates for Children, which is part of the coalition, said in a statement.
Bobson Wong, a math teacher at Bayside High School in Queens who is on the commission and has helped write and edit questions for the Algebra 2 Regents exam, wants to see more research before deciding whether the Regents exams should be eliminated or how they should factor into earning a diploma.
Regents exams have a mix of multiple choice and open-ended questions. Wong doesn’t think that multiple-choice questions best capture what students have actually learned about a subject, but he sees value in some sort of final exam, such as a Regents exam with just 10 free response questions.
“How would that change our thinking about student learning and student assessment?” Wong said. “Of course, there are logistical issues of how would you grade 3,000 exams like that, but just imagine if we kind of freed ourselves from the mentality of making this a standardized test.”
Wong said he’s not opposed to the idea of alternate or performance-based pathways such as essays or projects, but he’s skeptical of how well they prepare students for life after graduation.
He’s hoping that the commission can have an “honest conversation” about why current requirements are leading to rising graduation rates but are leaving many students without the skills he believes they need after high school.
“Every teacher I know, knows that there is enormous pressure within the entire system to graduate students, whether or not they know the material,” Wong said. “I know students who have difficulty doing middle school math, so why are they in high school? Because we don’t have the support in place to master the content in middle school, so we just move them along because we don’t want a 15-year-old sitting in seventh grade.”
Reema Amin is a reporter covering New York City schools with a focus on state policy and English language learners. Contact Reema at firstname.lastname@example.org.