New York state has a long and proud history of administering rigorous subject-area examinations, allowing its most advanced students to demonstrate mastery of demanding academic content. For the last 20 years, the state has required all students to pass five of these exams—later reduced to four—to earn a high school diploma. The state’s Board of Regents is poised to eliminate that requirement. Critics argue that to do so would mean dumbing down standards.
That criticism is wrong. Doing away with the tests in their current configuration could serve to restore rigor and meritocracy to New York’s high schools, while also ensuring that a more diverse array of students, including those who are not college-bound, are positioned for success in early adulthood.
For over 100 years, the Regents exams were not administered to every student. They aimed to measure the achievement of the highest performers—those deemed capable of college preparatory work. In New York City, home to the nation’s largest public-school system, these exams, like the SAT, were part of the ladder of social mobility for poor, immigrant, and first-generation American students. A “Regents diploma” signified high achievement across a broad range of college prep coursework through four years of high school. Other students received a “local diploma,” signifying that they had attended high school for four years and passed the required number of courses.
The last 20 years, which the Board of Regents is now seeking to undo, have witnessed a failed attempt to raise achievement by setting a bar that most students had never been asked to meet—college preparedness—while simultaneously lowering standards for the academically gifted and wasting the time and talents of the workforce-bound.
Since 2004 all students who pass the five (later four) tests required of all students have been awarded a Regents diploma. A student who passes the full sequence of nine tests receives a Regents diploma with advanced designation. Only students with special needs can earn a local diploma.
This change has resulted in numerous instances of diminishing rigor to accommodate lower-achieving students, thereby defeating the tests’ purpose. Incidents have ranged from outright cheating on the part of school administrators to more benign attempts to “scrub” exams, looking for the few extra points in an essay response that would get a kid over the bar for graduation.
The state education department also seems to have dumbed down the exams’ content and has reduced the number and percentage of correct answers required to pass the test. The English Regents exam, for example, was once a six-hour test administered over two days; it’s been shortened by half. As early as 1996, when the state was phasing in the new graduation requirement, the state threw out the results of a Regents Mathematics exam when seventy students failed it, allowing them to graduate if they had earned a passing grade in their coursework.
These practices, prompted by the ill-advised decision to require all high school students to take these formerly rigorous exams, reached absurd levels during the Covid school closures. The spring 2020 exams were cancelled and the spring 2021 exams were curtailed. In 2022, students were allowed to appeal exam results if they scored at least 50, as opposed to the traditional passing score of 65.
The Regents are right to be moving to undo this requirement. Where they seem poised to err, however, is with their apparent intention to use a single diploma policy for all students. Instead of three diploma types—local, Regents, and Regents with Advanced Designation—they would allow a single Regents diploma to include a notation or seal indicating superior achievement.
The Regents should return to the original system. They should acknowledge that students enter and leave high school with different abilities, motivations, and goals—and ensure all high school graduates meet a high standard of achievement commensurate to their chosen path. Those who enter high school with acute academic prowess should be guided through the old-style Regents exam track on the path to a full Regents Academic diploma—with tests restored to their prior level of rigor. Students more inclined toward workforce preparation should be allowed to pursue a sequence of courses aligned to industry standards in their chosen field and have their performance measured by demonstration of their proficiency on those standards, not by Regents examinations. After all, the labor market doesn’t need only white-collar workers; it needs students who can excel and lead fulfilling lives in technical fields.
Some students flourish in a more progressive educational environment, which reduces the importance of formal examinations. The schools currently in the Performance Standards Consortium, working under a partial waiver of the current testing requirements, are allowed to replace two of the four required Regents exams with their own rigorous assessments and have a strong record of success with these students. The Regents are right to expand that project, with support for the proper training of teachers in the Consortium’s methods. Finally, the local diploma should be reinstated, indicating that a student attended high school (with their attendance really tracked and at a reasonable level) and passed their courses.
The era of pretending that all students want or need to attend college is over. New York’s Board of Regents should accept reality and acknowledge that success and achievement look different for different students. Only then will our schools offer ladders of social mobility to all students.
Ray Domanico is senior fellow and director of education policy at the Manhattan Institute.