High school students will soon be able to opt out of a social studies Regents exam in favor of a test focused on job skills as a result of changes approved by the state’s Board of Regents on Monday morning.
The changes will offer new flexibility to the state’s rigid high-school testing regime, which previously required students to pass end-of-year exams in math, English, science and two social studies subjects. Students will now be able to have an exam in fields like culinary arts, accounting, or carpentry count as their fifth Regents exam if they have completed a related course of study.
The shift, which had been expected and is broadly supported by both union and business leaders, comes after years of debate about how to best prepare high school students for the world after graduation. New York state’s graduation rate is 75 percent, but even many graduates aren’t prepared for college-level coursework and must take remedial classes once they enroll in college. College readiness rates lag especially for black and Hispanic students.
In recent years, the state has focused on raising graduation standards—requiring students to pass the five Regents exams with a score of 65 and eliminating the “local diploma” option that had allowed many students to receive diplomas with lower scores. While that change didn’t affect statewide graduation rates, it did lead to fewer English language learners who graduated and advocates complained the tougher standards were unnecessarily restrictive because just a few missed points on a single Regents exam has stranded some students without diplomas.
The changes would allow for students to replace the fifth Regents exam with one of 13 career and technical education assessments. Students will also be able to replace the fifth exam with additional assessments for humanities and math and science, and, in the future, the arts.
Officials said that they had also established a “biliteracy pathway” that would include an assessment in a language other than English. State Education Commissioner John King said an Advanced Placement Spanish Literature exam could serve as one way for a student to receive graduation credits.
The new pathway for career and technical education programs like automotive repair and nursing is likely to have the biggest impact, since it may motivate students who have struggled to meet traditional graduation requirements and make it easier for them to earn a diploma. For years, the programs — now in 45 city high schools — had a reputation for housing low-performing students and providing substandard academic work, earning criticism from then-Public Advocate Bill de Blasio in 2012. More recently, the city has created programs focused on high-earning fields with in-demand jobs.
Officials said they hoped the changes would encourage more career and technical education programs like the highly-touted Pathways in Technology Early College High School in Crown Heights, which partners with IBM and trains students in computer engineering at a local college.
“In the whole CTE discussion, clearly there were people who heard those words and heard ‘vocational ed’ and saw it as the lesser pathway,” said Regent James Tallon, who warned that the stigma could stick without successful implementation of the new graduation requirements.
King said that more money from the state legislature was needed to support local efforts to expand CTE programs. He declined to specify how much was needed, but said that the amount would be a priority in the Board of Regents’ annual budget request.
Last year, 2,800 city students graduated with a CTE distinction, and Board of Regents Chancellor Chancellor Merryl Tisch said Monday that the new graduation requirements could spur the city to create 1,000 more seats in underserved areas.
“I think that’s a benchmark that the city is prepared to think about and prepared to meet,” Tisch said. “We are calling on the city, for whom we are working to turn around schools, to include CTE as a major part of their turnaround structure.”
Chancellor Carmen Fariña declined through a spokesperson to comment on how the state’s changes would affect the city’s plans for struggling schools. But she said she welcomed the changes as a way to support her agenda to expand CTE programs citywide.
“We are broadening our efforts across the City to ensure we are preparing our students for college as well as the jobs of today and tomorrow, and these new graduation standards reflect that goal,” Fariña said.