Op-Ed | No more exemptions: NY Board of Regents must end social promotion for high school seniors

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This week the State Board of Regents sent very mixed messages to the students and families of New York State who are still struggling to catch up from the learning loss caused by inadequate remote and hybrid learning during the lengthy pandemic school closure. But rather than learn from NYC’s experience of ending “social promotion” under Mayor Bloomberg, the Regents are compounding their pandemic mistakes by creating a new kind of “social promotion” for prospective graduates that will do nothing to put them on a productive path for life after high school. Failing to properly prepare students to excel in their future college or career plans but cutting corners on the high school diplomas, especially for students of color, English Language Learners and students with disabilities, will achieve the exact opposite result. 

New York is one of nearly a dozen states that administers exams at the end of the year to make sure students are meeting education standards in core subjects. But then the Board of Regents makes a mockery of that same exam, by passing students who any objective observer would say bombed the exam. For example, to pass the August 2022 Algebra 1 exam, a student only needed to get 28 out of 86 questions correct, a paltry 32% correct. Even students getting 2/3 of the exam wrong, could still file an appeal, so long as they had 17/86 points on the test, a mere 19.8%!

Technically, the action taken by the Board of Regents last week was to extend an “emergency policy” that started during the pandemic allowing students to appeal when they failed Regents tests and get their diplomas. At the height of the pandemic, with so many kids, especially those living in poor and low-income communities across New York forced to learn from home with unreliable interest and oftentimes asynchronous learning experiences, some adjustments made sense. But with every school back and fully open for learning, the emergency policy is more of a cover up for the Regents than an accommodation for the students.

While the pandemic has required us to have some flexibility due to individual family circumstances, we cannot allow for the wholesale gutting of academic standards if we want our high school graduates to be ready and able to attend college or find a meaningful job in the workplace. Students living in poverty are most at risk when we trick them into believing that they have achieved the same education as those in the wealthiest districts by giving them passing grades that bely the fundamental truth of their academic achievement. To achieve real education equity, New York needs to make sure that the diploma that students receive is more valuable than the piece of paper that it’s printed on.

There is a glimmer of hope on the way, but it’s not immediate. It was good to see the state education department create a new commission aimed at making sure high school graduates are ready for “college, career and civic life.” Unfortunately, that commission is not expected to make its recommendations until spring 2024, at least 18 months away. While we wait, who is going to make sure the current high sophomores, juniors and seniors have what it takes to not just get to college but succeed? Our kids can’t wait.

Jacquelyn Martell is the New York State Director of Democrats for Education Reform and New York City public school, and then graduated City College and later earned her master’s degree at Columbia University.

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