5 Regents exams or 4, if only it was that easy. Just a few inconvenient questions….And a suggestion

State Board of Regents plans easier paths to high school graduation
“The State Education Department aims to ease high school graduation requirements by creating new ways for students to earn a diploma, officials said Tuesday. In October, the State Board of Regents will vote to decrease the number of Regents exams students are required to pass to graduate. Schools will still offer Regents tests in English, math, science, U.S. history and global history — but instead of passing all five to earn a diploma, students will have to pass just four.” NY Daily News 9/3/14

Let’s forget all of the roundabout rhetoric, tricky terminology, fancy phraseology; for a moment. Let’s put aside whether this makes sense educationally, or not. This is in fact a lowering of the standards for graduation (for some students, and not others; I will come back to that.) If it quacks like a lowering of standards, it walks like a lowering of standards, then well……. Can we at the very least be honest, and just call it what it is? A lowering of the graduation standards.
Now for the questions:
1) First, I have a lot of questions (which is probably why I have a lot of questions) Like:
• Exactly what problem(s) are we trying to solve here (really); if it is to give students more options, I can think of a lot of different, creative more proactive and better ways to accomplish that.
• Who, what, where (data) are these students who can’t graduate because of not being able to pass one Regents exam?
• Is it one particular (content) exam that dominates the failure rate?
• Are students struggling with a particular group of exams?
• Why are so many students struggling to pass the exams; if it’s a reading (and not interest, i.e. the student likes science or history) problem; perhaps we should seriously invest in that area, early?
2) Will students of color, poor students and young women select the Science and Mathematics exams as their op-out choice; thus undermining all of the work invested over the last decade, in trying to expand the participation numbers of these underserved cohorts of students?
3) What will be the demographic (Black, White, Latino, Asian…) profile of those students who represent the majority of the “opt-out” for the one less Regent exam?
4) Will this initiative be seen, specifically by Black and Latino male students as an academic “life boat” (only the boat is really leaking, and sinking fast!)
5) What effect will the economic status profile (Title 1 schools vs non-Title 1 schools) have on students who opt in, or out of that 5th Regents exam?
6) What will be the geographic profile (urban vs. rural) of schools and districts, whose students opt in or out of that 5th Regents exam?
7) What are the rubrics and standards for the “alternate exit assessment”; and in reality will any student, short of just not doing it, really fail it? (If not being motivated by compassion alone; schools who don’t grant students a pass on their “alternative assessment”; would be committing the equivalent of “school statistical suicide”)
8) In the end, the “alternative assessments” will (literally) run the full spectrum of: engaging students in serious and rigorous work, to well………something that looks like, middle school work? (My apologies to middle schoolers).
9) Why won’t the decision in many cases, to take a 4th or 5th Regents exams; simply “turn” on who has the most system savvy parents; parents who have mastery of the English language, and who know how to navigate the American education system?
10) What is to keep Black, Latino and poor students from not weakening their college admission and scholarships applications by only taking the 4 Regents exams? (Please don’t say: the presently overworked and overwhelmed school guidance counselors)
11) Have colleges pledged to see the 4 Regents diploma and the 5 Regents diploma as of equal value? (Of course they have not, I am just asking)
12) Won’t there be an incentive for some students in the state to take that 5th Regents (there would need to be some type of diploma designated difference from the 4 Regents exam students); since their diploma would say to colleges and employers: I have taken the most challenging path to high school graduation!
13) If indeed they are the same “diploma”; why can’t the students who do opt to take that 5th Regents exam have a legitimate claim that their diploma is being cheapened by association with the 4 Regents exam diploma?
14) If instead they (4 and 5 Regents exams) are two separate and distinct diplomas; but somehow being sold as of equal value. Then the old “separate but equal” argument arises; if they are equal then why make them separate?
15) Won’t this exacerbate the “diploma gap” as a small number of students will opt to take that 5th regents exam, and also take AP courses and exams; for which the Regents courses and exams (serving as prerequisites), have made them prepared and eligible to take AP courses and exams?
16) I know I have been away from NYC for a while; but doesn’t a portfolio alternative to a Regents exam already exist. As a principal many years ago, I saw one of those portfolio presentations at a New Vision High School. And I still can remember that student’s powerful and comprehensive Biology project on the Rain Forrest; where she covered the entire Biology regents syllabus in a major multi-media presentation; all who were present (principals) were blown away; the work I saw that day was a better, and a much more difficult assessment then the Biology Regents exam…Is that what we mean by “alternative assessment”? If so I am with it!
17) Once I (a high school student) choose the exam I will skip; do I still take the class; and if a science class, the lab? And what incentive is there for me to put in any extra energy; beyond what is needed to pass the course? Am I essentially auditing the course?
18) Remember any graduation requirements change has at least a 4 year life span. Do we want to pilot something like this first for students who are terribly under credited, and seriously overage; couple with a paid work-study program?
19) The history of New York State education is that with many of these “major changes”; that will often lead to a change back (The Sequential Math debacle….need I say more?). The greatest harm is disproportionately visited upon the weakest students, and the children of parents who are politically disenfranchised. How will we make this change, this time, different? We own a long list of “dramatic changes” that promise to be the next/new “game changer”; like ending decentralization instead of fixing it; we need to employ our hearts, and our thoughts compassionately and analytically, when making these major changes.
20) When will we get serious about raising student academic achievement? If we pursue this path, taken by other states seeking to game the graduation rates game (hoping people, politicians and the news media will focus on the numbers, and not the quality of the graduates); eventually we will get to: Pick and Pass 2 Regents exams and have a nice day.

Suggestion: We need to have a serious discussion about what should be the intellectual profile of a NYC high school graduate. What skills (able to do), information, competencies, technologies and knowledge (able to apply) that will allow them to function as an informed citizen; and be prepared to enter, and meet the emotional and educational requirements of an adult post high-school life. For sure the format and structure of the Regents exams need a lot of work. Presently they are too easy for some students and too hard for others; and I am not sure that the exams are testing students on at least ½ of the things they need to know for college or the world of work. There should be a real performance based; problem-posing/problem-solving, creative, innovate, and practical application (Praxis) standardized assessment format. We should still test for those things we just can’t get around; like: Scientific methods and theories. We don’t want students wasting time rediscovering the laws of physics or chemistry; the algorithms in Mathematics; the ability to read, write and speak effectively. We should allow students to select a “career path” (Career Technical Education should be one of them); but 4 years is a long time; and the 4 years after graduation is also long; and so students (as many of us) should not be locked into a lower /higher diploma format, as they may change their minds as to a career path at any point in high school or after high school (I have seen plenty of evidence of this over the years). There already exist a two-tiered high school pathway by way of Advance Placement exams, special honors programs, International Baccalaureate, specialized, screened and special application high schools; and schools that have a rich offering of intellectually challenging electives, and those that don’t. Granted this “4 Regents exam” plan is a quick and easy way to artificially raise graduation rates. But I am not sure that it will actually raise the academic quality of those graduates it purports to serve.