top of page
  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Graduation exams can be 'ladder of social mobility' -- or useless

For more than a century, New York students have taken Regents exams in multiple subjects to prove they were ready for college-level work, writes Ray Domanico of the Manhattan Institute. "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."

High achievers could pass nine exams to earn an advanced diploma. Those who couldn't meet the minimum requirements earned a "local" diploma.

Twenty years ago, the state decided all students should pass four to five exams to earn a Regents diploma, he writes. Only special-needs students are exempt.

The Regents' current plan to eliminate the requirement would lower standards, say critics. He disagrees. "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."

To give lower-achieving students a chance to pass, the exams' content has become easier and the number of required correct answers lower. Some school administrators have resorted to cheating or to “scrubbing” exams to push students over the bar.

Regents' exams no longer measure college readiness, he argues. They're too easy for high achievers -- and still too hard for low achievers.

It makes sense to undo the requirement, writes Domanico. But it's a mistake to go to single diploma for all students, even if it includes an "advanced" designation for high achievers.

Instead, students should be able to choose to pursue an academic Regents diploma, backed by rigorous exams, or "a sequence of courses aligned to industry standards in their chosen field . . . measured by demonstration of their proficiency on those standards."

To keep the system honest, schools need a local diploma for those who pass their courses, but don't pass proficiency exams, Domanico writes.

Abandoning common exams would "open the door to the same kind of game playing and excuse making that masked the failings and inequities" of schools in the past, responds James A. Peyser, who was secretary of education in Massachusetts.

Inevitably, most urban schools would use local assessments and diplomas based on lower standards, while suburban schools would offer "academic" diplomas tied to state exams.

In Massachusetts, the bar to pass state exams in English, math and science has "drifted downward," he concedes. However, the state is trying to raise standards and add a U.S. history test.

The state offers alternative routes to a diploma for students who can't pass the tests. These include "participation in a structured, state-approved occupational pathway or early college program," Peyser writes. The local high school designs the plan.

The state teachers' union has qualified a measure for the November ballot that would end the use of a state graduation exam.


Jan 04

The iron rule of education: one can have high standards or a high rate of success but cannot have both.

Yet, most people writing or studying education policy refuse to admit to the iron law or admit that education achievement falls along an S-curve and nothing can be done about it.

Bruce Smith
Bruce Smith
Jan 04
Replying to

This assumes a single set of standards applying to all students, whereas Mr Domanico more usefully perceives an array of different competencies that youth might well develop, with their achievement displayed on multiple graphs, if and when such measurement is useful, which is often not the case with employers' apprenticeship programmes.

bottom of page