Fresh off lowering the criteria to pass state exams at the 3rd through 8th grade level, New York education officials might be doing the same at the high school level—creating a more “flexible” road to graduation. Come next school year, the advanced Regents diploma may no longer be an option for students who have gone above and beyond, while alternatives and exemptions will be made available to students falling behind.

The state Board of Regents, which oversees New York school districts, empaneled a commission to “explore what the New York State high school diploma means and what it should signify.” The 64-member Blue Ribbon Commission for Graduation Measures has proposed 12 changes in a report submitted to the Board of Regents this week. The Regents have until spring to respond. 

Among them are some good ideas, like increasing access to career and technical education (CTE) and advanced courses in math and science. However, many of them represent a departure from objective measures of student achievement (like standardized tests) in favor of more subjective and “flexible” methods of proving readiness to graduate. 

The proposed changes range from reducing testing requirements, adjusting teacher training and prioritizing cultural awareness and civic engagement in the classroom, to potentially “modifying or dropping Regents Exam requirements” and ending the Regents diploma as we know it. Students may have the choice to opt out of traditional exams in core subjects to instead be assessed on a portfolio of accumulated classwork, a group project, or a presentation to their teacher.

The commission recommended that all NYS teacher certification programs be required to include culturally responsive training, and for state learning standards to align with a “diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility lens in all subject areas, including history.”  

It also recommended that credit requirements be refocused around loosely defined “21st century skills,” including civic responsibility, cultural competence, as well as financial and media literacy with “social-historical context.” 

New York schools currently offer three types of diplomas: local, Regents and Regents with advanced designation (honors). Regents diplomas require students to complete 22 credits of Regents-specified coursework, pass four exams (English language arts, math, science and social studies) and to complete one of several “pathways” in areas ranging from arts to career and technical education. 

With a proposed one-diploma strategy, the Regents diploma with advanced distinction may no longer be an option for students who have gone above and beyond. In fact, one-third of the commission wanted to “eliminate the option to add seals and endorsements” on diplomas that would reflect merit. 

The commission also suggested creating exemptions to assessment altogether for students experiencing trauma (like a death in the family). 

This comes at a time when many NY students have been struggling with the basics (reading and math) for over a decade. Flexibility has already been granted at the high school level multiple times throughout the state’s history. Students were able to graduate with a score as low as 50 percent on their regent’s exam during the pandemic and during the last overhaul of state standards in 2016. Plus, the state is currently in the process of lowering the criteria to pass at the 3rd through 8th grade level via a change to cut scores on state assessments.  

For nearly ten years, not one K-12 cohort of students in NY has been measured against a standard that wasn’t changing.  

On top of this, NY’s testing framework is underpinned by outdated technology for assessment and reporting, keeps teachers too close to the grading process, and results in persistent achievement gaps, especially for high-need students. The proposed changes by the commission address none of these problems. 

While many states offer multiple pathways to graduation, most (forty-eight of them) also invest in modern technology and often adhere to a continuous measurement strategy–meaning standards intentionally do not change over time. Tests like this can identify knowledge gaps, learning differences, and English language needs. They can be scored immediately and transparently, getting students out of the test quickly and providing timely data to teachers and parents before it’s too late. Some states have even raised the criteria to pass at the 3rd through 8th grade level to ensure students are mastering the skills necessary to build upon in high school (and whatever they choose to do after graduation). 

New York is one of only two states still using the assessment system known as Questar, along with Alabama. (Tennessee recently replaced it after several years of missteps). Students in New York are still largely taking tests by filling in bubbles on scantron sheets with #2 pencils and producing handwritten responses in paper booklets.  In some cases, NY students’ assessments are even being graded by their own teachers (a conflict of interest most states avoid). 

Moreover, the literature is mixed on whether performance-based assessments like presentations, projects and portfolios are a “better” measure of students’ readiness to graduate. Some argue that problem solving, critical thinking, and other “higher-order cognitive abilities” do not easily fit into standardized, skill-based assessments. On the other hand, foundational skills like literacy and numeracy may not be accurately measured by performance-based assessments like presentations, projects and portfolios.  

Organizations such as the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) and the Program for International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) still rely on a traditional, standardized assessment framework to gain an accurate picture of where people stand on critical competencies like literacy, numeracy, and even problem-solving and digital fluency.   

Developing skills outside of reading and math is necessary for a successful life. But if it comes at the expense of developing them at all, students will continue to leave the system unprepared for what’s next.  

The question also remains: what is in a school’s reasonable ability and purview to teach and assess in the course of one K-12 career? What do parents want schools to teach when it comes to concepts outside of those required by the federal government?  

At the very least, it is concerning that the Board of Regents would consider using resources on any changes that may result in more objectivity and flexibility before addressing fundamental inefficiencies in the system itself.  

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