The state Board of Regents has signaled it is rethinking requirements for a high school diploma, including the make-or-break Regents exams that have been around since the 1800s.
But some local leaders in public education say any changes need to be measured and considered in a way they believe the Board of Regents’ announcement wasn’t.
Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa initiated the discussion in the July edition of On Board, a publication of the New York State School Board Association, after the latest data showed graduation rates, while inching upward, remain stubbornly tied to by race, poverty and special needs.
"Simply put, the system is not working for everyone, and too many students — particularly our most vulnerable students — are leaving high school without a diploma," Rosa wrote.
Overall, about 89% of white students who started high school in 2014 graduated on time, compared with 70% of black students and 69% of Hispanic students, according to state Education Department data.
New York is in the minority of states that require exit exams to graduate from high school. Among that shrinking number, New York also requires more exams.
That could change with the findings of a commission expected to get to work this fall on a review of what students should know before graduation and how they should prove it, whether through the current three-hour Regents exams or alternatives including projects or community activities.
James Frame, superintendent of GST BOCES, spoke about that at Tuesday’s meeting of the BOCES board, urging board members to communicate to their constituents that Regents exams aren't being eliminated any time soon, if at all.
“There [have] been a lot of media stories, some with correct information and some without, about Regents [exams] going away,” Frame said. “This is not going to happen overnight. There will be no final outcome on that for at least a year, probably two.”
Corning-Painted Post Superintendent Michael Ginalski said state officials seem to be avoiding the real issues behind racial and other disparities in test results.
“It appears [based on the initial statements by Rosa] to be a rush to solve an alleged problem [with the tests] that doesn’t really exist,” Ginalski told The Leader. “It would be great if they could look more closely at root causes as to why the current system isn’t working rather than making a potential wholesale change [to correct what] is more a symptom of a greater problem.”
He said he doesn’t oppose changes to the system, as long as they’re made with the right goals and with the right information at hand.
“As an educator I agree that students can be assessed a variety of ways, so I understand the intent,” Ginalski said. “However, I just hope that if there is a desire to study this, they visit various parts of the state and do the appropriate fact-finding prior to moving forward with any decision.”
In the Corning-Painted Post district, based on a recent study on racial equity commissioned by the school board, African-American students actually outperform peers with their average scores on state testing.
That isn’t the case statewide or around the country.
Standardized testing at every level, from the English and math assessments that begin in third grade to the SAT and ACT used in college admissions, have come under intense scrutiny in recent years. Opponents such as the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, or FairTest, argue such one-day assessments do little to advance learning while disadvantaging segments of the population.
High school exit exams, in particular, FairTest said, prevent tens of thousands of students from collecting a diploma, creating barriers to success even for students who have stayed in school and completed all of their other requirements.
"The Board of Regents and state Education Department have made it a priority to allow students to demonstrate their proficiency to graduate in many ways," Education Department spokeswoman Emily DeSantis said in a statement. "As we have said, this is not about changing our graduation standards. It's about providing different avenues — equally rigorous — for kids to demonstrate they are ready to graduate with a meaningful diploma."
Regardless of the final decision, local educators seem to have been taken by surprise by the way state officials publicly raised the issue.
“I was alarmed when I saw the initial headline,” Ginalski said. “I would hope that the Board of Regents would conduct the appropriate fact-finding prior to making this change.”
Frame noted there have been significant changes in New York’s state educational leadership in just the last few weeks.
The commissioner of the state Department of Education, MaryEllen Elia, surprised many when she announced in July her plans to resign at the end of this month.
“It’s a scary time [at the state Department of Education],” Frame told the board, listing a number of departures that are accompanying Elia’s resignation. “Pretty much all the senior leadership is gone.”
He said despite the presence of an interim commissioner, he believes it will take a while to find a replacement and get a new leadership team in place.
The Regents-appointed commission on testing, which will include parents, students, educators, researchers and community leaders, is expected to be assembled in September, with a goal of presenting its findings to the Board of Regents in fall 2020.