New York City students can now pass Spanish exam on path to graduation

Starting this June, New York City students will be able to pass a Spanish exam as a requirement that counts toward graduation — a move that could help non-native English speakers earn a diploma.

High school students using this new option will still have to pass four of New York’s Regents exams. But now, they can substitute New York City’s Spanish Comprehensive Exam for their fifth required test and still earn a diploma, State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia announced on Wednesday.

“These additional pathway assessments are an excellent way to promote the kinds of knowledge and skills that students need for success in the global economy,” Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said in a statement. “We hope and expect that this will encourage school districts to invest in high-quality world languages programs.”

The city created this Spanish test after after the state eliminated Foreign Language Regents exams in 2011. New York City students can already take the test —  which includes a speaking, listening, reading and writing component —  on their way to earning a more advanced diploma, but this is the first time the test may be used for a more standard Regents diploma.

Approximately 300 New York City schools offered the exam during the 2017 school year, according to city education department officials. Students must complete three years of Spanish coursework or equivalent coursework from a Spanish-speaking country and pass the exam in order to take advantage of this new graduation option, city officials said.

State officials also announced on Wednesday they have approved graduation exams in Chinese, French and Italian, at the request of an entity that provides services to a group of school districts upstate. Those options will not be available for New York City students in 2018, according to city officials. (New York City can choose to offer these tests in the future, according to the state.)

So far, the city has only submitted the Spanish exam for state approval. However, city officials said they will consider asking to add more foreign language tests to the mix in subsequent years.

Some advocates are cautiously optimistic that this could help some students learning English earn diplomas, though they say it is too early to tell exactly how schools will capitalize on the new option. English learners graduate at rates far lower than their peers. Less than 33 percent of New York City’s English language learners graduated last year, compared to the citywide graduation rate of 74 percent.

“Having a foreign language +1 pathway will support English language learners who struggle with graduation requirements,” said Abja Midha, deputy director of Education Trust-NY. “It is also important that schools provide English language learners with the English and math instruction they need to be ready for postsecondary success.”

Still, those learning English will be required to pass another four exams, including an English Regents exam, which could limit their ability to use the new option, said Ashley Grant, a supervising staff attorney at Advocates for Children.

“We’d still like to see more pathways that don’t rely on high-stakes assessments,” Grant said.  

The foreign language option is part of a growing of set alternative graduation paths in New York. Instead of taking a fifth Regents exam, students can already take assessments in areas like career and technical education, the arts, or by earning a skills certificate. Additionally, students with disabilities can now graduate without passing any Regents exams.  

State officials say they are creating these options because there are numerous “comparably rigorous” ways students can demonstrate what they know outside of the state’s traditional Regents exams. However, a recent Education Trust -NY report questions whether some these alternatives are tracking students into coursework that is not geared towards college.