Don’t Abandon Common High School Graduation Exams

Domanico’s back-to-the-future proposal would set back cause of educational improvement
Image of students sitting at graduation

Ray Domanico’s recent blog post favoring an overhaul of New York State’s high school graduation requirements raises several important concerns about the current system, but the reforms it endorses would set back the cause of educational transparency, accountability, and improvement.

Domanico argues that the state’s mandatory end-of-course Regents exams have been “dumbed down” over time, both in terms of their content and passing scores, because all students must pass the tests in order to graduate. To address this problem, he recommends that the one-size-fits-all approach be abandoned and replaced with a tiered system, whereby students, their parents, or their schools can choose from several diploma options, each with its own type of assessment.

Domanico suggests that only students pursuing an “academic” diploma should be required to pass “old-style” rigorous end-of-course Regents exams. Students “more inclined toward workforce preparation” could “demonstrate proficiency” in their chosen vocational or technical pathway. Schools that provide a “progressive educational environment” would be allowed to develop their own “authentic” assessments, aligned to their unique curricular models, something that is allowed today under a limited waiver. And other students who “pass” their high school courses and have a “reasonable” attendance level would receive a “local diploma.”

In many respects, this is a back-to-the-future proposal. I grew up in New York State, during what Domanico might consider the good old days, before the Regents exam was a (mostly) universal high school graduation requirement. At my suburban high school, most non-vocational students took the Regents as their end-of-course final exam (at least in math and science), which the teacher used to help determine our final grades. Other high schools, particularly those in low-income, minority neighborhoods, used the Regents exams sparingly, only for those students deemed to be on a college track. Regardless of who took the state tests, everybody got diplomas, unless they dropped out or failed to meet minimal GPA or attendance requirements. Because I took the Regents exams, I technically received a “Regents diploma,” although I was unaware of the distinction.

At that time, no one paid any attention to school- or district-level test-taking patterns and, given the differing policies and practices regarding who took the tests, the results would not have been particularly useful for purposes of public accountability (assuming anybody had bothered to gather the data).

The bottom line is that an opt-in approach to the Regents exam would open the door to the same kind of game-playing and excuse-making that masked the failings and inequities of school systems in the days before the standards-based reforms of the 1990s and early 2000s. I have no doubt that, given the option, most urban school systems would decide not to use state assessments as part of their high school graduation requirement, opting instead for locally developed assessments and local diplomas based on differing standards (if any). Meanwhile, in most suburbs, where parents insist on assurances of college-readiness, “academic” diplomas tied to state exams would remain in place.

In other words, New York would be embracing the pre-reform system that produced what President George W. Bush aptly called “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

Here in Massachusetts, where our state assessment system is called MCAS, high school students must receive a passing score on 10th-grade exams in English and Math, plus another passing score on at least one science test, in order to graduate. There are plans eventually to add a U.S. history test to the graduation standard. As in New York, the passing scores have drifted downward over time, making the MCAS bar fairly easy to clear. As a result of action taken by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in 2022, however, the graduation standard will be gradually increased over the next several years—assuming a potential 2024 ballot question eliminating MCAS as a graduation requirement fails.

To sustain a common set of academic expectations for all students, while not overshooting the target or unfairly denying a diploma to students who are otherwise demonstrating reasonable achievement, Massachusetts has adopted a number of alternative routes for students who do not achieve a passing score in 10th grade to demonstrate sufficient competency. These include the successful completion of an Educational Proficiency Plan developed by a student’s own school to address specific learning gaps in 11th and 12th grades. Such plans can include participation in a structured, state-approved occupational pathway or early college program.

Domanico is right to call out the New York Board of Regents for lowering standards. He is also right to question whether higher standards can be sustained through a single test. But his solution would create more problems than it solves.

James A. Peyser served as secretary of education for Massachusetts from 2015–2022 and as chairman of the state board of education from 1999–2006.

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