NY is changing high school graduation requirements. Here’s what’s next in the multi-year effort.

A bunch of people in purple graduation gowns toss their mortarboards.
New York high school students would no longer be required to pass the state's Regents exams to earn a high school diploma under a set of proposed actions Education officials outlined on Monday. (Chuck Savage / Getty Images)

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Students will no longer be required to pass the state’s Regents exams to earn a high school diploma under a set of proposed actions New York Education officials outlined on Monday.

Instead, they will have a menu of options to choose from to demonstrate their knowledge and skills in seven key areas: critical thinking, effective communication, cultural and social-emotional competences, innovative problem solving, literacy across content areas, and a status as a “global citizen.”

Together, these areas help establish a “portrait of a graduate,” which officials hope will serve as the “north star” of the education system.

The proposals — presented at a meeting of the state’s Board of Regents — come as the latest step in a multi-year effort to redefine the state’s graduation requirements.

Though state officials did not take action on the proposed changes on Monday, they are moving toward implementing the 12 recommendations that a 64-member Blue Ribbon Commission unveiled last year, which included calling for assessment options beyond the Regents exams, broadening access to career and technical education, creating additional credit requirements in subjects like cultural competence, writing, STEM, and more, as well as other changes.

Education officials will present a full plan for implementation to the Regents in November, with projected timelines as well as further details about possible fiscal and regulatory implications of the changes.

Here’s a look at the four proposed actions outlined by state education officials, as well as what lies ahead for New York high schools:

How New York diploma requirements could change

New York education officials presented four “transformative actions” to move the state toward implementing the commission’s 12 recommendations.

The first of these actions would adopt the commission’s portrait of a graduate as the framework for high school diploma requirements, tasking students with demonstrating proficiency in each of its attributes prior to graduation. Education officials also called for the state to redefine credits to focus on proficiency, expanding the ways students can show their skills to include options like capstone learning projects, work-based learning experiences, and more.

As an example, education officials noted students could demonstrate their communication skills in various ways, like obtaining a seal of biliteracy, taking an English composition course, working a summer internship at a community newspaper, passing a state English exam, and completing a digital media career and technical education program.

The state would also add new CTE and financial literacy credit requirements.

State education officials also proposed ending a requirement that students pass Regents exams in order to earn a diploma — keeping the exams as one option for students to fulfill requirements, but not mandating all students pass them in order to graduate.

The state should also consolidate to a single state diploma, eliminating local and advanced designation diplomas, and instead offering those distinctions as seals or endorsements, officials said. Under this change, local school districts would be required to confer degrees to students who fulfill state graduation requirements and could no longer withhold a diploma based on district requirements.

What the proposals mean for the state’s Regents exams

Officials emphasized Monday that the state’s Regents exams will continue to be administered.

The exams, a rite of passage for New York high schoolers for more than a century, have faced criticism from some, including students and families who previously expressed that the tests do not feel like sufficient measures of student learning. New York is one of a handful of states that has continued to require exit exams, though research has found little evidence to show such exams improve student achievement.

And as the state worked to rethink its diploma requirements, some speculated that changes would mean the end of the long-standing exams. Discussions over the exams also prompted concerns from some that changes would relax state requirements. But at Monday’s Regents meeting, education officials pushed back on that narrative.

“We need to be careful with how we frame this, because the new proposed framework will be assessing students — it’s just not a standardized Regents exam requirement,” said Regent Shino Tanikawa. “There are multiple ways of assessing students.”

Officials from the state’s Education Department added all of the current Regents exams will remain available to students, even if their passage is no longer required to earn a diploma.

To some, the proposed decoupling of Regents exams from diploma requirements came as a significant victory.

Kim Sweet, executive director of Advocates for Children of New York, praised the state’s Education Department for “proposing bold steps to revamp New York State’s graduation framework.”

“At AFC, we routinely work with students — many of whom have disabilities or are still learning English — who have completed their coursework but are unable to earn a high school diploma because they struggle with standardized assessments, sometimes sitting for a single exam a half-dozen times to try to raise their score by just a few points,” Sweet said in a statement. “Allowing young people to demonstrate their skills and knowledge in multiple ways, without requiring them to pass high-stakes exams, will help ensure our State’s education system meets the needs of today’s students.”

What comes next for NY graduation requirements

No formal action on the proposals was taken on Monday, and each of them will need to be approved and adopted by the state’s Board of Regents before being implemented.

The state’s Education Department will continue to discuss the proposed changes at a series of forums over the coming months, soliciting feedback and refining aspects of the framework ahead of the November presentation of a full plan, according to a timeline shared at the meeting.

Still, questions remain over what these proposed actions could look like in practice for schools and students.

David Bloomfield, a professor of education, law, and public policy at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, called the proposed elimination of required Regents exams “a welcome end to the era of months-long test prep and rote learning.” But he added that many specific details remain unclear.

“It’s not clear how students and districts will navigate these new pathways and if the end result will be well-rounded, educated graduates ready for post-secondary opportunities and citizenship responsibilities,” Bloomfield said. “The Regents presentation was more of an advertisement than an analysis of hard questions the proposal raises about the future of high schools.”

Julian Shen-Berro is a reporter covering New York City. Contact him at jshen-berro@chalkbeat.org.

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