New York could soon stop requiring many high school students to take Regents exams to earn a diploma, a major step in a sweeping overhaul of the state’s graduation system as it joins a national movement to rethink high-stakes exit exams.
For generations of New York students, the path to high school graduation has run through the Regents exams, which some students take as early as middle school. Reducing the role the tests play in graduation would be one of the biggest education policy shake-ups for New York in a decade.
On Monday, an advisory group formed by the state’s Education Department will recommend that all students be given options other than the exams to prove they have mastered material.
Students could still choose to take the Regents tests to graduate. But they would also be given new ways to show they are proficient in skills, such as capstone projects, presentations or “performance-based assessments.”
The Regents exams, some of which must be offered under federal education law, have shaped classrooms statewide since before World War I and were once viewed as a model blueprint for rigorous standards. But high school graduation tests have fallen out of favor across the country over concerns that the mandates hurt disadvantaged teenagers.
Half the country required exit exams a decade ago. Today, New York is an outlier, joined by only a handful of other states, including Florida and Massachusetts.
Betty A. Rosa, the state education commissioner, said in a recent briefing with reporters that the Regents exams would remain one helpful measure of a student’s knowledge.
“But it’s just one moment in time,” Ms. Rosa said, adding that a better system would allow teenagers to demonstrate other strengths. “That for us is really the end goal,” she said.
Officials plan to create a timeline for implementing the recommendations by next fall.
To graduate in New York now, most students earn 22 credits, and pass five Regents exams in subjects like English, math and social studies. The tests — which typically run three hours — shape high school life across New York.
Teachers spend many hours preparing their classes. Some teenagers sit for the exams four or five times until they pass.
The proposed changes would have once have been hard to imagine in New York, a steadfast champion of statewide testing and rigorous standards. A decade ago, the state embraced the Common Core, for example, a controversial set of English and math standards meant to raise academic levels.
But in recent years, it became unclear whether the state was actually boosting achievement and helping more students graduate prepared for college. Some research shows the Regents requirement in particular may have done little to improve outcomes. Instead, it may have led more low-income and Black students to drop out.
Now, Ms. Rosa said the state wants to tackle graduation “through the lens of students” who have faced barriers in “access and opportunities.” Education leaders have signaled support for the recommendations, and if accepted, the plan would immediately become Ms. Rosa’s farthest-reaching initiative as commissioner since she was appointed in 2020.
Some students already use other pathways to graduate, and a small group of schools were already exempt from most of the exams.
The proposals come as state education leaders wrestle with a dilemma: After students spend thousands of hours in school, what skills should they need to graduate — and how should they show they have mastered them?
Education leaders and advocates worry that standardized test scores can be influenced by a student’s income, cultural differences or other obstacles.
But critics of changing requirements say it is important to have clear ways to measure student progress and decide if students have met appropriate benchmarks for moving on to the next level in their education. Some also say there is a danger that more students of color could be pushed down less rigorous routes.
In Massachusetts, the teachers’ union has backed a bill to end the state’s exam mandate, arguing for a “fairer” approach that is “better suited” to teenagers’ current needs. But after Oregon said students would not need to show proficiency in reading, writing and math to graduate, many parents argued a diploma would lose value.
“We ask the K-12 school system to do lots of things,” said John Papay, an associate professor at Brown University who studies high-stakes testing. “One of the questions is ‘How do we have requirements ensure students leave high school ready to live productive lives?’”
On both poles of the debate, experts say teenagers who leave high school without enough preparation can face severe consequences later. For decades, scores of New York City students needed remedial math or English classes upon enrolling at local community colleges — tuition-based courses that often added to their debt, but did not count toward degree requirements.
David Steiner, a former New York state education commissioner, said he worries over the “catastrophic disconnect” between students’ post-high school plans and their incentives to have mastered material to achieve them.
“That was the great glory of New York’s system,” he said, adding that in many states, “what used to be called ‘failing’ is now called ‘passing’ — and when we stop telling ourselves the truth about how are students are doing, the only people we damage is our students.”
Ms. Rosa said New York’s planned overhaul is “really, truly not lowering standards” and would simply better address each student’s needs. State leaders will also consider several other major changes, including:
Adding new credit requirements in areas like “cultural competence,” financial literacy and writing skills.
Moving from a system where students can earn three different types of diplomas, including a Regents diploma, to a single diploma system with optional distinctions.
Creating distinct diploma requirements for teenagers with unique needs, like migrant students.
When changes roll out, graduation rates would be closely tracked.
The debate about Regents requirements was intensified by the pandemic, when some requirements were eased, and some groups like English language learners saw far better outcomes.
Some educators worried more teenagers were leaving school ill-prepared, but others believed the results were a sign that the state needed to reimagine the high school experience.
Alprentice McCutchen, a New Rochelle social studies teacher who was a part of the state group that made the Regents proposal, called the current requirements “draconian” and “highly problematic.”
He recalled students whose Regents exam performance could be hindered by obstacles in their personal lives, like upheaval at home the night before a test. “They feel inadequate. And that weighs on their self-esteem,” he said, adding that New York should be in step with “the needs of the 21st-century world.”
“Everybody’s not going to need algebra. Everybody’s not going to need historical dates,” Mr. McCutchen said. “But they will need to know how to problem solve and ask questions.”