It’s time to start ‘hard work of rethinking’ Regents exams, New York’s top education policymaker says

Regents exams remain a requirement for New York high schoolers to graduate, but the state’s top education policy maker has opened the door for a future where that is not the case.

Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa published a column in an online newspaper accessible to members of the New York State School Boards Association suggesting that the state could one day do away with the graduation tests it has used since the mid-1800’s.

“Regents exams have been the gold standard for over a century – and with good reason,” Rosa wrote in February. “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.”

The statement, first reported by the Daily Gazette in Schenectady, marked a departure from Rosa’s earlier comments on the exams. “The Regents exams have been part of our core … so that would be a challenge to sort of say, ‘Let’s get rid of Regents exams,’” she told Chalkbeat in 2018.

State education officials told Chalkbeat Wednesday that Rosa stood by those statements in response to our report that New York is now one of just 11 states still requiring exit exams.

The column laid out no timeline for possible changes. (State education officials did not answer additional questions.) Rosa wrote that she would ask the two-year-old Regents Research Work Group, launched to identify ways to diversify New York schools, to study the state’s graduation requirements. Part of the group’s charge, she said, would be to “examine current research and practice to determine … whether state exit exams improve student achievement, graduation rates, and college readiness.”

The research on that point is clear. As Matt Barnum reported in 2016, studies have found that graduation tests do not result in better-prepared graduates and actually harm some students, especially low-income students of color.

Would doing away with the storied exams receive local support if the working group concludes that’s the best course forward for the state? The group that published Rosa’s column said yes, perhaps.

“If the research were to show us that somehow Regents exams lead to great degrees of inequity, that is something we would study and something we would clearly have a position on,” said Jay Worona, the deputy executive director and general counsel of New York State School Boards Association.

Such a move could find more favor among educators. Tests should not be “used as a gatekeeper to graduation,” said Norma Vega, the principal of ELLIS Academy, a Bronx high school serving English language learners, who graduate on time at a far lower rate than other students. “Somebody has to stop and say, ‘Let’s really look at the research and look at what is necessary to thrive in college.’”

Vega said she would want the state to continue to impose high standards for graduation even if Regents exams disappear. State policymakers have said they want to ensure students are college-ready — especially those who substitute one of their Regents exams for an alternative assessment, a practice which has helped boost graduation rates in New York City.

In the column, Rosa listed possibilities of what could replace Regents exams if the state moves away from them. “Might those other measures of achievement include things like capstone projects, alternative assessments, or engagement in civic and community activities?” she wrote.

Whatever happens with the research group, Rosa signaled that she wants New York to remain part of the national conversation about graduation standards.

“Policymakers in other states have begun the hard work of rethinking what a high school diploma means and what it ought to signify,” Rosa wrote in the column. “I believe it is time for New York to begin this difficult conversation as well.”

Reema Amin contributed to this report.