State Board Proposes Blue Ribbon Commission

The state Board of Regents is creating a commission to possibly eliminate the state’s Regents exams.

At its most recent meeting, the Board of Regents have proposed creating a Blue Ribbon Commission on New York State Diplomas. The commission will include parents, students, educators, researchers, advocates, higher education and business officials. The group will revise current diploma requirements, make sure students have access to multiple graduation pathways and include a transition plan timeline that allows time to prepare for and implement the changes.

The commission will answer several questions, including what children should know and be able to do before they graduate; how should they demonstrate knowledge and skills; to what degree does passage of Regents exams improves student achievement, graduation rates and college readiness; and what other measures of achievements (capstone projects, alternative assessments or engagement in civic or community activities) serve as indicators of high school completion.

“What are our requirements?” asked MaryEllen Elia, state education commissioner. “Are there going to be exit exams? As you know, we could ask all of you, do you have a Regents Diploma. I could raise my hand. That is something that has a history in New York state and we have as the research and the literature that you have been presented with, it questions where do we keep those exams? Do we open it up, and I know many of you are very focused on pathways that we could open up, but those are all things that I think are questions.”

Before 1996, Regents tests were optional under the state’s two-tiered system. Students could either earn a Regents-endorsed diploma or obtain a local diploma by taking a Regents Competency Test, depending on whether they intended to go to college. The Board of Regents then decided on making the Regents diploma mandatory.

Regents have, over the past several years, made changes to increase graduation rates by allowing students to complete a capstone project or the “4+1” program that allows students to pass four required Regents tests and take an advanced course to meet the fifth assessment requirement. Passing scores have also been reduced from 65 to 55%, and students with disabilities who score below 55% can be approved for a diploma by a school district superintendent.

“Graduation matters,” Elia said. “Options for students are particularly important. The work that we have seen has presented various options, expanding from New York state’s perspective that “4+1” into many different options and to an extent we do that, but I think it’s clear we need to review everything. It is so convoluted sometimes when you look at our graduation requirements. We’ve got to make them more focused and move our students to the right place.”

It is expected there will be hearings in each of the state’s judicial districts, while the Board of Regents plans to use BOCES to support its engagement and outreach efforts. Surveys will also be developed. After the Regents deliberate and make a decision, the process will begin to develop regulations and guidance to schools; begin a test development or modification process if new tests or changes to tests are needed. A timeline and transition plan will be developed with training and support to school districts planned.

The Blue Ribbon Commission’s membership and draft meeting schedule will be set by September with an initial meeting in October. Sub-groups will meet from January through March 2020 with reports back to the commission in April. A plan will be finalized in the summer of 2020 and a final report presented to the state Board of Regents in the fall of 2020.

While the discussion was lengthy, Elia boiled the process down to one simple point — the Regents has to decide how students will demonstrate they are ready for the world. If the Regents exams aren’t the right way to do so, what is?

“How do we want them to demonstrate this,” Elia said in regard to how passing the Regents test improves achievement. “It isn’t just pencil and paper tests. There are so many different ways that our students demonstrate their knowledge beyond just standardized tests. I think at this table we have had extensive discussions along those lines. The other part is to what degree, and this can become a little challenging for those individuals who not only have been recipients of Regents diplomas but also that it’s hard sometimes to think of our work in terms of making changes. There are people who want to hold onto things and not necessarily take a leap and make changes. Change is not easy for most people.”