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New graduation requirements proposed by NYS education department would "sunset" Regents exams

New York State Education Commissioner Betty Rosa
Lucas Willard
New York State Education Commissioner Betty Rosa

New York education officials have unveiled a proposal that would transform the state’s graduation requirements. The plan is intended to bring equity to all students, but some questions remain.

The New York State Education Department’s plan would transform how graduating students are assessed.

State Education Commissioner Betty Rosa began working on the mission to reimagine graduation requirements in 2019, when she was a Regents Chancellor.

Rosa, a former superintendent, says the proposed requirements aim to create “true equity” in education.

“I think that our educational system, in many ways, really responds to a certain group of students, and yet, it doesn't do a good job in bringing along some of our students that have a different way of absorbing and learning and demonstrating what they know,” said Rosa.

The first area of transformation is to adopt what’s called the New York State Portrait of a Graduate – a set of criteria that includes critical thinking, problem solving, cultural and social-emotional competency, and more.

“We truly want our kids to innovate. We want them to be inspired. We want them to think about opportunities, possibilities. We want them to be, even when they read journal pieces, media pieces that are out there, we want them to be critical thinkers,” said Rosa.

Other key recommendations of the proposal include redefining credits to focus on proficiency, rather than completion of a time-based system; sunsetting diploma assessment requirements – no longer requiring all students pass the standardized Regents exams to graduate; and moving to one diploma. Districts would still be allowed to recognize students who go beyond required coursework with special seals or endorsements.

Jaime Ciffone, Executive Vice President of New York State United Teachers, says the state’s largest teachers’ union supports all four proposals.

“When you really look at what these project-based learning opportunities do, is they make those real-world connections. They deepen vocabulary in content. And, I think it's really important for people to know that this is not about lowering standards. It's really about meeting our students where they're at,” said Ciffone.

The recommendations were developed by a body of stakeholders called the NYS Blue Ribbon Commission on Graduation Measures. Jay Worona, deputy executive director and general counsel for the New York State School Boards Association, praised the state’s approach.

“There were students, there were parents, there were school board members, there were superintendents. And I think that my understanding of talking to many of these people, is that this was not preordained by the State Education Department. This is what the education community came up with, in terms of what would be best for students. And that to me is democracy in the making, and that sounds like a good idea to me,” said Worona.

Arlen Benjamin-Gomez, Executive Director of the Education Trust-New York, says the group is largely in support of three of the core tenets, but does has concerns with the proposal to “sunset” the Regents exam requirement.

“So, removing the one objective statewide standard is very concerning. And there’s a reason why nearly every civil rights organization has supported annual assessments, in the federal ESSA requirements, for example, because we know that without some sort of standardized objective criteria, we don’t end up knowing what students of color, in particular, and students from low-income backgrounds, how schools are meeting the needs of those populations and how we can target resources for them,” said Gomez.

Commissioner Rosa says the plan is to allow Regents exams to “be at the table” in assessing students but to not “take center stage.”

“The example I always use is that when you go to the doctor, the doctor doesn't just do one exam, right, before they say ‘We're going to need surgery,’ right? They go through a battery. And so, we want to do the same thing. We want to make sure that we are measuring all the elements and that we're coming up with a composite that makes sense,” said Rosa.

The Education Department is planning a series of forums this summer to gather feedback on the transformation plan. Rosa also acknowledges there are a lot of unknowns related to implementation.

“We have to come up with strategic planning. We have to create a strategic plan for this endeavor. And we also know that there are going to be unforeseen consequences that we have to grapple with, and so we are prepared to do that, but we're also…this train has left the station, it's on the road, and we hope that by the time the Regents look at the timeline and look at what comes next, in terms of the implementation, that we're in a good place with our communities,” said Rosa.

The state Education Department is scheduled to present an implementation plan to the Board of Regents in November. Until a new system of graduation requirements is approved by the Board, existing requirements will remain in effect for New York public schools.


Lucas Willard is a news reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011. He produces and hosts The Best of Our Knowledge and WAMC Listening Party.