New York State sets timeline for reconsidering diploma requirements — and the future of the Regents test

New York’s education policymakers are getting ready to analyze state diploma requirements — including whether the Regents exams are still needed. But don’t expect changes any time soon. 

Officials on Monday laid out a two-year timeline, ending in the fall of 2021, to make recommendations on what should change. Most notably, they will be scrutinizing New York’s vaunted high school exit exams and determining how to measure students’ readiness for life after graduation. 

When this effort was announced in July, officials suggested a one-year timeline, which some members of the Board of Regents called too aggressive. Interim Commissioner Beth Berlin said two years is “still an aggressive timeline,” but one that will allow the state and commission leaders to make thoughtful decisions. 

New York’s dive into diploma requirements comes as more states have ended their use of high school exit exams. In May, for example, Washington eliminated its required exam to graduate. In addition to specific course requirements, New York students must pass five Regents exams to earn a diploma, though the Board of Regents have expanded ways students can fulfill this requirement. Once commonplace, New York is one of the 11 states where these types of tests still exist — despite decades of research that shows high school exit exams don’t better prepare students for college or a future career and that they can harm students of color from low-income families.  

“It is going to get hot,” said Regent Susan W. Mittler of the conversations that they’ll have over the next two years. 

This fall, regional workgroups will be created across New York, composed of one Regent and multiple district and state education leaders. Through January, they’ll be meeting with and collecting feedback from students, families, advocacy groups, and researchers. Their feedback will be funneled to the blue ribbon commission, which is the group charged with giving the Board of Regents final recommendations for changes. 

That commission, to be formed in February, is expected to include representatives from the state’s five biggest districts, including New York City, and education groups like the state and city teachers unions, and the New York State PTA. 

Vice Chancellor T. Andrew Brown said he was concerned about how people of color would be included in the conversation around graduation requirements. He recalled a previous gathering of state educators at which he was “alarmed” by the lack of diversity in the room. 

“This is too important a task, and this blue ribbon commission is going to be tasked with too big an issue” for people of color not to be represented, he said.

The hope, Berlin said, is that allowing regional groups to form before the blue ribbon commission is created will pave the way for final recommendations that “are representative of the diversity that’s needed on many, many aspects.”