March 2011 Issue
February 18, 2011

Should graduation requirements be changed?

Author: Sylvia Saunders
Source: NYSUT United
Caption: Schodack school counselors Lisa O'Leary, left, and Teresa Hebert study the Regents proposal for new graduation requirements, at a Capital District hearing. Photo by Andrew Watson.

Though wintry weather postponed many of the Board of Regents' regional hearings on whether to increase New York's graduation requirements, it's crucial that teachers add their voice at remaining forums.

The Regents are considering a wide range of options, such as adding math and science requirements to graduate and raising the cut score for current Regents Exams.

The state education policy-making board is also looking at ways to provide more flexibility in how students may satisfy graduation requirements, and at extending the school day and school year. An online survey posted on the State Education Department website drew more than 11,000 participants as NYSUT United went to press.

While NYSUT clearly supports students being college and career ready, NYSUT Vice President Maria Neira is urging the Regents to thoroughly study and debate the changes before any decisions are made — especially given the recent adoption of the Common Core State standards in English language arts and math, the upcoming new generation of state assessments and development of curriculum models.

Neira voiced concern that the State Education Department was expected to release new graduation data in March, including a new "college and career readiness" graduation rate. The college career graduation rate, which is based on students receiving an 80 or better on their math Regents and a 75 or better on their English Regents, is substantially lower than the currently reported graduation rate for most districts.

"We need continued participation in the regional forums," Neira said. "We are concerned the new college career rate is based on limited data. College and career readiness should be evaluated on multiple measures, not only two data points."

Neira said the over-arching concern in all of the proposed changes to state graduation requirements is the fiscal impact and costs of the initiatives during a time of fiscal crisis and the very real possibility of a tax cap. "Many of the proposed changes to graduation requirements will have additional costs associated with them," Neira said. "Changes to graduation requirements carry enormous consequences — some potentially unintended — on our schools, students and teachers and should be thoroughly debated and studied before any decisions of such significance are made."

Attendance at the statewide forums has grown steadily as word spreads about SED's plans. The first regional forums were held at Monroe 2 BOCES on Jan. 19 with about 160 educators. At a forum Jan. 25, about 200 Capital District educators participated, followed by about 350 at a Jan. 27 forum at Erie 1 BOCES.

At each of the forums, Commissioner Steiner said the changes are needed to ensure that students are college- and career-ready. He presented sobering graduation data showing how many college students need remediation and how many never receive a higher education degree.

At the Capital District forum, several participants called for more remediation in high school; flexibility in middle-level scheduling; flexibility in seat time; and more opportunities for service learning and internships.

The New York State Technology Education Association submitted a detailed position statement noting that research shows students need and prefer hands-on, project-based and differentiated learning and technology education, not more test requirements.

Bethlehem teacher Michael Mitchell of the NYS Association of Foreign Language Teachers urged policymakers to consider offering foreign language study sooner to give students earlier exposure and more options later.

Steiner said foreign language is one of several subjects that have been pushed aside by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. "We need more equality for subjects ... to allow students to show us excellence in areas of passion," Steiner said.

Kathleen McGowan, an art teacher in South Glens Falls, voiced concern that removing requirements or allowing "flexibility" could compromise subjects like the arts, home and career skills and technology. "In these economic times, I fear that districts will use flexibility as a loophole to eliminate these important subjects," she said.

At their February meeting, the Regents made it clear they do not support the elimination of requirements for technology education, home and career skills, and library and information skills.

One Regent noted that board members received more than 1,000 e-mails from middle-level education advocates opposing such a move. NYSUT continues to oppose eliminating the middle-level requirements.

After recent forums in New York City and on Long Island, the only new regional meeting slated is March 22 at Lake Placid Middle-High School. New dates were expected to be set in March for Syracuse, Potsdam and Westchester.