NY education officials propose removing Regents exams from graduation requirements

The decision comes after the Biden administration said testing will be required this year, but that schools wouldn’t be held accountable for scores.

A classroom with green walls and empty desks.
The state education department will move to allow New York’s high schoolers to graduate without their Regents exams this year. (cinderellasg/Flickr)

New York high school students may not need Regents exams this year to earn a diploma, state education officials announced Tuesday.

State officials plan to vote next month on a proposal to unlink New York’s century-old high school exit exams from graduation requirements. The change would apply to students taking tests this year, and officials anticipate the proposal will look similar to last year, when Regents were canceled and students were required to pass only the related course.

The decision comes a day after the U.S. Department of Education announced that students must still take standardized tests this school year in order to gauge the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on student learning. However, schools won’t be held accountable for test score results, and states will have broad flexibility in how to administer them.

In New York, students must typically pass five Regents exams to graduate from high school, on top of completing course requirements. Three of those tests — English, science, and math — are tied to federal standardized testing rules for high schoolers, and while the state can’t cancel them, they would like to ensure they are untied from diploma requirements. For the other exams, which are not required by federal law, the Board of Regents will also consider a proposal to cancel them this year, according to Emily DeSantis, spokesperson for the state education department.

Earlier this month, New York state officials had joined several other states in asking the U.S. Department of Education to waive standardized tests and school accountability requirements for a second year in a row. With many students still learning from home full-time, and struggling to navigate remote school or access reliable internet, several states hoped to shelve the required exams. 

DeSantis said the department was “disappointed” with the federal government’s decision to mandate testing but said it was “the right call in affirming that no child should be made to come to school to take a state assessment.”

The department is still deciding how to proceed with other standardized tests, including grades 3-8 reading and math exams administered in the spring. States will be able to shorten the tests, lengthen the window for which students can take the test, potentially pushing it off into the summer or next school year, or offer tests remotely, the federal guidance said. New York officials have said that it “will not be possible” to give exams remotely.

The federal government’s recent decision to mandate the tests, even if schools won’t be held responsible for the student’s scores, could spark another wave of families opting out of the exam. This week’s announcement from the Biden administration ignited immediate backlash from educators and advocates concerned that spending time and money on the exams would deflect attention from meeting students’ great academic and mental health needs. In 2016, New York state was the epicenter of the testing opt-out movement as debates raged about Common Core and standardized testing, though opt out rates in New York City were relatively low. 

Schools aren’t expected to be penalized for students who don’t take Regents exams, as the federal government is allowing states to apply to waive school accountability requirements — including the rule that 95% of students must take the required standardized test or otherwise risk being labeled as a school in need of improvement.

Along with other standardized tests, Regents exams were canceled last year because of the pandemic. Just under 14% of last year’s seniors who passed a particular course received a Regents waiver in lieu to taking the exam. (Students take Regents starting in seventh or eighth grade, so many graduating seniors already had credits from previous courses.)

Graduation rates rose in 2020 across the state and in New York City, though state officials said it’s impossible to know to what extent the cancellation of Regents exams played a role since they don’t know how many students with waivers would have passed the exams.  

Some advocates have long been pushing the state to unlink Regents exams from graduation requirements, and the state was in the midst of a major effort to rethink diploma requirements in New York as the pandemic took hold. Those calls have since grown louder during the public health crisis.

Ashley Grant, director of the Postsecondary Readiness Project at the nonprofit Advocates for Children, supported the decision to remove the Regents from graduation requirements. 

“This is great news and will allow teachers and students to focus on the work of teaching and learning, confident that students who meet all other graduation requirements will not lose their chance to earn a diploma because of COVID-19,” she wrote in an email.

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