Raising the Bar: New York’s High Standards for High School GraduatesNovember 18, 2023
Just eight U.S. states, New York among them, make students pass exit exams to graduate high school. Now comes word the Empire State may drop its Regents exams, spurring critics to howl that already cheap diplomas are set to be worth less than the paper they’re printed on.
There’s reason to worry. There’s also an opportunity for educational progress if this is done right. The state and city need to demonstrate that what would replace Regents requirements wouldn’t lower the bar but raise it. That is a high bar in itself, but it’s one educrats must get over.
To earn a Regents diploma, students must get a 65 or higher on five exams: English, math, social studies, science and one more of the student’s choosing. In theory, that requires a student to demonstrate broad knowledge before going to college or into the workforce. In practice, not so much. The Regents aren’t extremely high-quality assessments like the exit exams in Massachusetts or Advanced Placement tests are. One respected veteran educator described them to us as “mile-wide and inch-deep,” and that high schools typically orient their entire curricula to ensure passage for as many students as possible, crowding out helpful innovation and effectively setting a low common denominator.
The 38 public schools of the New York Performance Standards Consortium have pointed to a better way, replacing five passing scores with more compelling proof that kids have learned at a high level, typically analytical essays, extended original science experiments and the like, all of which are graded using rigorous criteria. The principal of one such school said the approach “frees you to go into much more depth into what you’re studying and allows for inquiry.” A 2020 study showed kids from the schools were likelier to graduate, to go on to college — and to stay in college.
We can already see eyes rolling: Sure, alternative assessments might work for some kids who are otherwise well prepared, but for the average kid with the average teacher in an average high school — or the many who, in a city that some see as reverse Lake Wobegon, are below average — ditching a graduation test is only going to be a ticket to dumb everything down.
It’s true that passing the Regents could be considered a bare minimum demonstration of educational achievement. The vast majority of middle schoolers at Success Academy pass four core Regents exams. It’s also true that this is a potentially perilous time to scratch the requirements, given COVID learning losses and widespread concerns about abnormally high chronic absences.
But students can learn at a higher, not lower level if so-so tests are kicked to the curb and truly meaningful proof of higher level learning is put in their place.
New York has two choices: If it is going to require students to pass a bunch of tests to graduate, it must demand that those tests are exemplary, which today they’re not, and orient K-12 education around a genuinely aligned curriculum. Or, it can decisively turn away from the exams as many other states have done and simultaneously require kids to demonstrate higher-order skills and knowledge in other meaningful ways. Over to you, educrats.