Tradition vs. Flexibility

Kevin Casey, SAANYS Executive Director
December 2022 News & Notes

In 2019, the Board of Regents created a Blue Ribbon Commission, on which SAANYS has representation, to review and reconsider high school graduation requirements. A comprehensive public process to examine this issue was laid out, and as appropriate it included stakeholder and public input, as well as studies by consultants and academics. The pandemic upended the original schedule, but the process is now back on track.

Front and center of the charge to the Commission is the fate of the Regents exams as high school exit examinations. The Regents exams themselves have been administered for close to 150 years, and serve to satisfy existing ESSA testing requirements. Those who advocate for the elimination of the use of the exams as mandatory exit exams point out that ESSA, while requiring certain testing, does not require that successfully passing those exams be an express condition of graduating high school. In fact, New York State is one of only eleven states that utilize an exit exam(s) as a condition of high school graduation, and graduation statistics suggest this condition particularly adversely impacts English language learners and students with disabilities.

For many years, the New York State Regents diploma was widely respected among educators as a gold standard of high school academic rigor. Those students who could not meet that standard could earn a local diploma, an option eliminated in the 1990’s. Without that option available, the Regents exams were seen as a barrier to graduation by some (somewhat mitigated by alternative pathways), thus allegedly prompting a lowering of Regents exam rigor so as not to adversely impact high school graduation rates.

The weight of opinion among educators on the Commission is reportedly to modify or eliminate Regents exam requirements. If this is in fact the approach taken, the challenge will be to develop meaningful performance-based assessment alternatives. Those opposed to or leery about modifying the status quo are fearful of a result, intended or not, that lowers academic standards.

I acknowledge the legitimacy of the concern about maintaining high academic standards. That is a worthy goal. I also think that is a goal that can be attained in multiple ways. Creating a high-quality credential should not come at a disproportional cost to ELL students, students with disabilities, or create a graduation barrier to those who can demonstrate by alternative methods subject matter mastery. The pandemic years upset the status quo in many ways. The silver lining of that difficult period was the demonstration that flexibility does not necessarily mean compromised standards, and that evolution, even if forced by circumstances, can render tradition obsolete.