What Should it Take to Graduate from High School in New York State?
Updated: Jan 27
Each year I work with students with disabilities who struggle on the traditional graduation path to a New York State Regents diploma. After conversations with a school counselor and several characteristically frustrating visits to the New York State Education Department (NYSED) website, I have became more familiar with the various nontraditional options for earning a diploma in NY (here is a summary document–get ready to really mash that zoom button!). Generally, graduation in New York requires satisfying a set of course credit requirements and passing at least four Regents exams. There are several pathways to earning either a Regents diploma or what is called a "local" diploma (most local diploma pathways still require that students sit for Regents exams, sometimes multiple times). The current system is a mess of layered footnotes, contrived phrases like "compensatory safety net," and implied appeal processes. As I tried to understand all the options so I could explain it to a parent, I imagined an overladen ship made increasingly precarious by years of bureaucratic nudging and tinkering. When I try to chart a path towards graduation for my students, I wonder: is all this complexity necessary? And should exit exams like the Regents play such a prominent role in earning a diploma?
A blue-ribbon commission was formed in 2019 to study New York's current graduation requirements, including the Regents exams. After being delayed by the pandemic, the commission is currently wrapping up a public comment period. It won't be the first time change has been considered; the Regents exams are over 100 years old and have experienced myriad iterations even in the last few decades. Currently, New York is one of only eleven states that still require high school exit exams for graduation. These exams have been shown to lead to increased dropout rates, especially for lower income students.
As a secondary special education teacher focusing on math, I spend most of my professional energy preparing my students to pass the Algebra 1 Regents exam. Since most of my students have IEPs, they need a scaled score of 55 to pass (this allowance is called a "safety net"). The exam is scored using a conversion table. In June 2022, a paltry 19 out of 86 points were needed to earn a scaled score of 55; only 27 points were needed to earn the standard passing score of 65. My students study Algebra 1 over the course of two years and take the exam at the end of the second year. In my more cynical moments, I worry that my students are struggling with a subject they are unlikely to use for at least two years in order to earn 19 points on an exam.
This Medium piece by Ed Knight points out some of the absurdities of the Algebra 1 Regents in its current form. He contends that a student could pass the test by just selecting the same choice for all the multiple choice questions (he makes a decent argument for this). In Knight's opinion, the exam no longer serves the purpose of assessing a student's algebra skills. While he seems to think the test is too easy, the fact remains that this exam is still a significant challenge for most of my students and is a real barrier to graduation for some. But I agree that, as an assessment of knowledge, it is too easy for college-bound students preparing for a field where some algebra knowledge might be relevant. Also, the extreme scaling of the raw scores is confusing and misleading. These contortions are necessary because of the exam's status as a requirement for graduation.
Like most teachers, I believe that the struggle inherent in learning a difficult skill can be a valuable experience. And most of our students do eventually pass the Regents (or qualify for one of the several appeals, safety nets, or compensatory pass schemes mentioned earlier). However, it can be protracted and frustrating struggle for many of them. These students hopefully walk away from the experience with some general problem-solving skills and maybe even improved grit and resilience. But there is a wide world of math out there that students aren't getting much exposure to early in their high school careers because the Algebra 1 exam is such a focus. General numeracy, literacy with statistics and representations of data, and financial applications mostly fall by the wayside in this assault on the Regents exam. We are missing an opportunity to teach students skills that seem more necessary for their lives after high school.
I've participated in two rounds of feedback with NYSED about graduation requirements. I've also talked with colleagues and parents about their concerns. Below are a few of the ideas that I hope the blue-ribbon commission is considering in their deliberations.
Graduation milestones are an opportunity to inspire, motivate, and engage
What if schools and students took some of the resources they currently plow into standardized tests and used them to implement a non-test based option for demonstrating the skills and knowledge we want a Regents diploma to represent? New York City currently has about three dozen schools that are allowed to award diplomas based on oral presentations, experiments, and projects. Other existing measures of competency (like the ASVAB, SAT/ACT, vocational certifications) could be used as an alternative to Regents exams, especially when coupled with a rich, community-based experience such as an internship or certification program.
Vocational and certification programs should start earlier
Our students have access to some excellent career and technical experiences (CTE) and vocational training, mostly through our local BOCES. But students are not allowed to participate in these programs until they have satisfied some of the most challenging graduation requirements (e.g., passing their Regents exams in Algebra 1 and Global History and Geography). In the current system, our most at-risk students are unable to even consider this option. This strict timeline is largely due to the Regents exam requirements for graduation; the BOCES programs rely on home schools to address these requirements since they only have resources to focus on their more specialized programs. Students who will be most likely to succeed in a BOCES program should be able to start before they become at risk for dropping out of high school.
Objective assessment and accountability still matter
A danger of moving away from a (nominally) blanket exit exam requirement is that students who are less successful academically in middle school and early high school will be tracked into non-rigorous graduation tracks. This is historically more likely to happen to students with disabilities, students of color, and students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds (old-style local and so-called "IEP diplomas" were phased out years ago for this reason).
It's worth noting that although the Regents exams are standardized, that doesn't necessarily mean that they are a rigorous graduation measure. Currently, students can earn a local diploma by taking a troublesome Regents exam multiple times and qualifying for one of several appeal options. Furthermore, passing a Regents exam doesn't mean what it used to due to the almost scandalous scale conversion that NYSED has resorted to. In 2019, a study by Ed Trust found that most of the state's recent increase in graduation rates could be attributed to students who were earning local diplomas.
NYSED certainly has a role to play in holding districts accountable and setting a high standard for secondary education in New York. But our communities have diverse needs, resources, and connections. Local districts could be given the opportunity to develop unique rigorous graduation pathways that utilize local educational and business partnerships. The respect and buy-in of the local community could be a source of accountability that also serves to rally resources and better engage students.
Mathematics requirements for graduation are in special need of revision
As I explained above, the Algebra 1 Regents is a mostly meaningless measure for both struggling students and those who will pursue a more math-focused course of study. The opportunity cost of preparing students for this exam is far too steep for our most vulnerable populations. At best, these students leave high school without key skills around financial management, data analysis, and practical numeracy. At worst, the math requirements for graduation may sink their chances for a successful high school experience.
Be bold and limit complexity
NYSED's recent approaches to addressing sagging graduation rates and concerns about equity have been adding a mind-bending variety of appeals, score-scaling, and layers of pathways for graduation (many of them just as flawed as the traditional routes). At this point, it takes a specialist to decipher the best path forward for a student who isn't following the most traditional path. A wholesale reimagining of the system is as unlikely as it is risky and controversial, but it's probably what is needed.
Is it time to end Regents Exams? (Northcountry Public Radio)
Goodbye, Regents? A New York commission mulls high school graduation requirements (Chalkbeat)
Are grading, homework and graduation shortcuts making kids dumb? (Washington Post)
Guessing C For Every Answer Is Now Enough To Pass The New York State Algebra Exam (Ed Knight)