Regents Mulls Raising Graduation Standards

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The New York State Board of Regents wants to raise high school graduation standards to ensure that students are ready for college and work.

At a hearing in Brooklyn Tuesday, State Education Commissioner David Steiner pointed to the high percentage of students taking remedial courses in college, and the growing demands for math and literacy skills in either college or work.

"Only three of the fastest growing 10 occupations do not require a form of education beyond high school," Steiner said.

A report by the Regents found less than half the state's high school graduates would be ready for college or work if they were required to score a 75 on their English Regents and 80 on math. Steiner said those are the levels required to succeed in the first year of community college.

With that in mind, the Regents are considering several ideas. They could would allow one of the five required Regents exams to cover an area of career or technical education. The board is also considering whether to add a second math exam because most students take the algebra exam in ninth grade and then forget math when they go to college. They could also raise the passing grade for the math and English Regents exams.

The city's chief academic officer, Shael Polakow Suransky, told those at the hearing Tuesday that he supports giving students more flexibility, but he also wants to see better tests.

"The challenge I would ask the Regents to consider is what is the plan around the assessments?" he said. "When is it that we're going to have assessments that measure college readiness?"

Suransky said simply raising the pass rate on the existing tests wouldn't be sufficient. He also said any new tests should be phased in gradually.

Several teachers and principals at the hearing called for less focus on standardized tests and said the state should provide alternate forms of assessments that measure critical thinking. And Denise Vittor, principal of Queens Vocational and Technical High School, warned the Regents not to create two separate diplomas.

"We are bordering on creating a system of yesteryear where we had the academic diploma, the commercial diploma and then the very basic diploma," she said.

Steiner said he doesn't support a separate vocational diploma. For example, if the Regents allowed students to take four academic Regents and one in career or technical education, he said that would be just as rigorous as earning a diploma with five Regents.

"Too many students have believed, understandably, that the high school graduation means they're ready for the next grade, which in this case means a community college of four-year college," Steiner said after the hearing. "I think we have to be very clear when we announce a graduation result it means what it means and not something else."

Steiner acknowledged other steps are needed, such as strengthening the K-12 curriculum and coming up with a better way of training teachers. The state is using its federal Race to the Top grant for these reforms.

The state has already begun raising graduation requirements. It's doing away with the local diploma for everyone except students with disabilities, and students will have to score a 65 on all five Regents exams. Some educators worry this will lead to lower graduation rates if the state doesn't strengthen its curriculum and provide more support to districts.