Monday marked the official start of a two-year process that could change how New York students earn high school diplomas — an undertaking that might include overhauling or eliminating the state’s vaunted Regents exit exam. 

The state education department has started working with the nonprofit education reform organization Achieve, which will review relevant literature and research on graduation standards in other states and countries. With a $100,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the education department will hire a part-time project manager and support Achieve with its review. (The Gates Foundation is also a funder of Chalkbeat.) Achieve has helped 20 other states examine their academic standards, graduation requirements, and assessments. 

Determining what New York’s high schoolers must do to earn a diploma could be the Board of Regents’ biggest undertaking over the next two years, and it’s starting at a time that the education department has lost several top deputies.  

Achieve will review literature and research over the next three months. This will include existing research from two New York University institutions: the Metro Center and the Research Alliance for New York City Schools, officials said. 

State and local district officials will also hold regional workshops to collect feedback from students, families, advocacy groups, and researchers. While those meetings had originally been scheduled to start this month, they have been pushed back to January to avoid conflicts during holidays.

The literature review and feedback from the regional meetings will go to a blue-ribbon commission tasked with giving the Board of Regents final recommendations on how they should change diploma requirements by the fall of 2021. 

A Gates Foundation spokesman said the group’s grant is related to goals outlined by Bill Gates in October 2017, which included a focus on improving curriculum and instruction. The group has pushed for Common Core standards and tying student assessments to teacher evaluations. In a statement, the foundation spokesman said this grant supports work that “holds the potential to advance equity and excellence in education – two key beliefs of the foundation.”

In September 2018, Gates donated nearly $1 million to Achieve, Inc. to increase the availability of “high-quality” middle school science curriculums.

Regent Susan W. Mittler asked department staff whether there were “strings” tied to the foundation’s involvement, specifically questioning whether the group has “any say in our decision-making at all?” Some of the Regents were skeptical of another unrelated Gates Foundation donation to the education department last November. Interim Commissioner Beth Berlin told Mittler that the latest donation is “to purely support the board in this exciting endeavor. They recognize this is a huge initiative.”