High school students statewide who want to graduate with an emphasis on career and technical education would be able to take one less Regents exam under a landmark change that won unanimous Board of Regents approval Monday.

Such students could opt to skip a Regents exam either in Global History or U.S. History and Government, in exchange for completing a sequence of occupational or technical courses, under the controversial new approach known as "alternative pathways" to graduation.

The changes, if they win final approval from the Regents in January as scheduled, would first take effect with teenagers who entered ninth grade in 2011 and are due to graduate in June.

Opponents of change -- most notably, a group representing social studies teachers on Long Island -- have contended that exam waivers would erode academic standards and students' preparation for citizenship.

State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. rejected that argument in opening remarks Monday before the Regents.

"This is not in any way a retreat from our goal of making students college- and career-ready," King said. "It's about advancing that goal."

Regents voted 15-0, with two members absent, to authorize state Education Department staff to proceed with a final draft of regulatory changes.

Supporters of alternative pathways, including administrators of regional BOCES agencies that provide occupational training, said that students wishing to take job-oriented courses shouldn't be overloaded with academic courses. Any students getting a waiver still would have to pass Regents exams in English, math, science and either global history or U.S. history.

"We have high school juniors and seniors spending half-a-day, every day in very credible high-quality training," said Michael Mensch, chief operating officer of Western Suffolk BOCES. "We would like to see that being recognized by the state as a viable alternative. There's an argument to be made that kids are being overtested."

Waivers would be granted only to students who passed alternative tests, such as assessments of job skills approved by various industry groups. Examples include a certification exam known as SET, developed by the Electronic Technicians Association, and the Carpentry Level-1 Certification, sponsored by the National Center for Construction Education and Research.

Initially, the alternate pathways revisions would affect relatively small numbers of students. Last spring, 8,380 high school graduates statewide -- 4.67 percent of the 179,610 total -- earned diplomas with a "CTE" endorsement, signifying completion of career and technical education courses.

In Nassau and Suffolk counties, the numbers last spring were even smaller. Only 759 graduates, or 2.17 percent of the 35,037 total, obtained diplomas with CTE endorsements.

State school officials envision much broader options for students than those on the technical side alone. Under the program, teenagers also would be allowed to waive a history exam in exchange for completing extra courses and assessments in the humanities, math, science or the arts.

The proposal has alarmed history educators, who warn that students are in danger of losing their civic heritage. The Long Island Council for the Social Studies, representing hundreds of teachers and administrators, has lobbied fiercely against the changes and has urged war veterans and others to join in the campaign.

Assemb. Charles Lavine (D-Glen Cove) wrote last week to King, noting the concerns of social studies educators that history lessons revolving around World War II were being marginalized, and that granting waivers from history exams would exacerbate the situation.

"As we lose this generation of Americans who waged that conflict and then came home to reinvent this country, it will become more difficult to understand ourselves and the world around us," Lavine wrote.

A spokesman for the commissioner, Dennis Tompkins, said that his office agreed that the history of World War II is important, noting that all students still would be required to take courses covering that historical period, even if they did not take one of the Regents history exams.

Roger Tilles, of Great Neck, who represents Long Island on the Regents board, said he had received more than 450 emails in recent days from local school officials and others either opposed or favoring alternative pathways.

"I've told the social studies teachers until I'm blue in the face that they're not going to lose one class in either global history or U.S. history," Tilles said.

With Michael R. Ebert