Some lawmakers worry eliminating the state's Regents exams could pose a detriment to New York's educational standards — a debate that's likely to be politically charged next session as the Legislature will consider several Board of Regents vacancies, appointing several people who will make the ultimate decision to change the state's graduation requirements.
Doing away with Regents diplomas, and rolling back the standardized exams required for high school students since the 1990s, were among the top recommendations the Blue Ribbon Commission on Graduation Measures announced this week with state Education Department leaders.
Over the next several months, the department will consider the 12 highest priority recommendations to update New York's requirements to get a high school diploma, including shifting focus to hands-on assessments and expand work-based career and technical education.
"Times have changed, populations have changed," Assembly Education Committee Chair Michael Benedetto said Friday. "We should look at what we are requiring for our kids and finding out if they're prepared to enter into society and into college and into the workforce."
The commission, empowered by the state Education Department in 2019 to examine the state's graduation benchmarks, used research and feedback from stakeholders to finalize its recommendations. Changes are not expected for more than a year, as Board of Regents members will seek feedback from state leaders and public input for several months.
Benedetto commended SED for the review, saying the requirements need an update.
"I think most important, however, is that we don't diminish the importance of a New York state education and that we keep our standards high," he said.
Diploma requirements would be expanded to include ethics and financial literacy, fine and performing arts, STEM fields and writing skills for real-world scenarios. Students will also have the option to earn seals or endorsements in certain areas.
"It will be a change, and changes are always difficult for people to accept," the assemblyman said.
But Assembly Higher Education Committee Chair Pat Fahy isn't convinced reducing standardized tests is the answer.
"My initial reaction is one of very serious pause," Fahy said. "I'm worried that we are lowering the bar instead of making sure we are doing the serious interventions to get everyone over the bar."
The Albany Democrat said Friday she's concerned the proposed change could exacerbate educational disparities most common for poor and minority communities.
Fahy questions if the changes are coming at the right time as COVID-19 pandemic-era students who grappled with significant learning loss grow older and consider higher education.
"There's already concerns about the COVID cohort of students coming out of high school who had lost so much academic ground and the national tests are bearing that out," she said. "No one wants to fuel more drop out rates, but we need to make sure that there's accountability across the system, especially for historically disadvantaged groups that were often shunted aside or there was a second tier system for them. I want to make sure history does not repeat itself."
But that's Senate Education Committee Chair Shelley Mayer sees it. The senator disagrees offering fewer state tests will lower New York's educational standards, and says the state must strike a balance.
"I think it's fair to evaluate whether the way we do testing of academic value is the right way and whether the Regents are the best test, and the way we structure them is the best test," Mayer said. "That's not lowering the bar — that's having a conversation about how we can make sure we're reaching higher levels. I think it's a very legitimate re-evaluation of our current system of testing."
The Board of Regents sets the state's education policy, and acts independently of the Legislature.
Lawmakers are set to appoint six members to the board by next March 31, 2024, with four terms expiring and two vacancies. Candidates will be questioned and voted on by both houses of the Legislature, but the Assembly — with 150 members to the state Senate's 63 — is more numerically powerful in who members support.
"They will be coming before the Higher Education and the Education committees for interviews, so, I would hope we will have some say," Fahy said.
Officials with the state Education Department referred to statements SED Commissioner Betty Rosa made on Capital Tonight earlier this week in response to concerns about fewer standardized tests lowering New York's academic standards.
Rosa said students should have many avenues to demonstrate project- or community-based learning.
"We want our students to really, truly learn, and it's not only deep learning, but the application," Rosa said. "We want our standards to be applied learning in the process. The composite for us is knowing that our children have different ways to demonstrate their learning. We want our students to have the overall composite of having different ways to demonstrate the learning process. It's about 'assess,' it's not about test. It's assess their knowledge and that's more important than taking a test."