Public Policy Institute of New York State, Inc.

Straight talk about higher standards

A Q&A on New York State's higher standards for education — and why they are important to students and employers

Key questions about New York's adoption of higher standards for education:

  • What are some examples of what students will have to know in order to meet the standards?

  • Some schools say they haven't been given enough time to meet the new standards. Is this true?

  • Is more money the key to meeting the higher standards?

  • Can we allow alternative tests to measure achievement of the standards?

  • Aren't we just forcing schools to 'teach to the test'?

  • They say that many students will no longer be able to take vocational education courses. Is this true?

  • What do teachers think about all this?

  • What about the students who won't be able to graduate in four years?

  • Are we being fair to poor and minority students?

What are the new standards, and how are they being phased in?

In April of 1996, the state Board of Regents acted unanimously to set new standards that will require students in New York State to pass Regents exams in order to receive a high-school diploma. These exams, which formerly were required only of students going for the optional Regents Diploma, are the centerpiece of New York's effort to upgrade educational outcomes. New York committed to higher standards in 1991.  This is the year they start taking effect.

The requirements are being phased in over the next four years--starting with the requirement that students seeking a diploma in June of 2000 must have passed an English Language Arts (ELA) Regents exam. Graduates in 2001 will have to pass both the English Regents and the math Regents. Requirements for one test in science and two in social sciences will be phased in after that. And to get a better handle on the progress students are making, the state is also implementing new testing programs in the fourth and eighth grades.

Why are these new standards needed?

Simply put, because the old standards did not leave students prepared for success in the workplace or in higher education. We've known this since 1990, because The Business Council participated in an extensive Education Department study of the knowledge and skills required to do most entry-level jobs well. The requirements of the adult world have only gotten more sophisticated in the intervening 10 years.

What are some examples of what students will have to know in order to meet the higher standards?

One of the tasks on the English Language Arts Regents involves reading a portion of a report and a chart (like one that might be found in a newspaper) on a particular subject , and answering some multiple-choice questions. Then the student must write a school newspaper article based on the information in the report and the chart. The student's article should show factors that influence trends described in the report; offer specific, relevant, and accurate information from the text and chart; use the appropriate tone for a school newspaper; organize ideas in a logical and coherent manner; use proper references; and follow the conventions of standard written English.

One of the problems on the Math A Regents test requires students to find, to the nearest tenth of a foot, the length of a ramp on a truck. The tailgate of the truck is 2 feet above the ground, and the incline of a ramp used for loading the truck is 11 degrees.

Some schools are saying they have not been given enough time to implement these new standards. Is this true?

New York State first committed to higher standards in 1991, under the New Compact for Learning that was adopted by the Regents (and signed by educators and by representatives of statewide parent, business, labor, education, government and other groups in a ceremony at Texaco). Education Commissioner Richard Mills began the discussion about translating higher expectations into specific testing requirements in 1995. After extensive outreach to educators and the community, the Regents decided that the 1996 entering freshman class would have to pass the English Regents exam by the end of their senior year (with a score of at least 55) to graduate in 2000. Schools thus have had at least four years to prepare this year's seniors to get a 55 on this English test.

Is more money for education needed for students to be prepared to pass the Regents exams?

Well, the schools are getting more money; state aid to schools in New York has increased by nearly $2.5 billion over the last three years, and local property taxes devoted to education have grown steadily as well. But money is not the key to school reform. If it were, as the third-highest spending state in the nation New York would be at the top on student achievement data. Instead, we are in the middle. Results from school districts around the state show that some low-spending districts do well, while some high-spending districts do poorly. Money is important to education, but it isn't the only factor.

Are the Regents tests the only way to measure achievement of these standards, or should we allow alternative tests?

The state will also accept International Baccalaureate exams and the College Board Advancement Placement exams as equivalent to, or more rigorous than, the Regents tests. The Board of Regents has established a review process for evaluating other alternative exams; any school district may submit a test for review. But the Regents exams themselves are an excellent measure of the attainment of the state learning standards.

How do teachers feel about these higher standards?

They know that the challenge is a tough one--but they approve. New York State United Teachers, the state's largest teachers' union, reports that a poll of teachers around the state found three-quarters support the higher standards.

Aren't we just forcing the schools to "teach to the test?"

If the test genuinely measures what students are supposed to be learning, schools should be "teaching to" it. The Regents exams are being upgraded to make sure they do incorporate the higher learning standards. The exams do not dictate how a teacher teaches, just what is supposed to be taught. Teachers can teach what the learning standards require in numerous different ways. The exams are geared to the standards--not to methods of teaching. Good teachers can still teach far beyond what the state tests require students to know.

Won't requiring all students to take Regents exams de-value the exams for those who were getting a Regents Diploma--because the exams will have to be made easier so all students can pass them?

Students currently earning a Regents Diploma will now be able to earn an Advanced Regents Diploma by taking two additional Regents exams. The state Education Department has been emphatic that the revised exams are not being made easier. In fact, some would say they are more difficult. Some students will still pass Regents exams with different scores which continue to reflect different levels of knowledge. Advanced placement Scholastic Achievement exams are also still available to advanced students.

I hear that many students will no longer be able to take vocational courses. Is this true?

Many vocational education courses around the state are being upgraded to incorporate the learning standards and thus enable students to pass the Regents exams. Today's workplace demands more than an understanding of how to accomplish a specific task; given constant changes in processes and skill requirements, a broader base of knowledge is becoming a fundamental necessity. Travel time between regular and vocational classes can become an issue, but any Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) willing to do so can offer academic courses on site. Specific vocational programs, such as the Automotive YES program, already incorporate the Regents requirements; others can do so as well.

Why are these higher standards needed for students who aren't planning to go to college?

Well-paying unskilled jobs have all but disappeared. The world into which we are sending our high-school graduates is a competitive, high-skills place. U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics indicate that one in three new jobs created between now and 2001 will require a B.A. or more--and that number is only going to go up. Virtually all jobs providing for a secure economic future will require some further education and training beyond high school.

Life-long learning is a necessity, not an option.

What are we going to do about the students who won't be able to graduate in four years?

They'll be better off under higher standards. What happens now is that students are graduated without being prepared for the real world--and then the school system is done with them. But those who haven't graduated are entitled to a free public education until the age of 21. Those who don't graduate in their 12th year will be able to take advantage of this extra time to reach the standards.

By the way, 78 percent of this year's seniors had already passed the Regents English exam before this school year began.

Are these higher standards fair to poor and minority children?

There are many schools drawing from high minority/low income neighborhoods that are doing spectacularly well--proving that youngsters can succeed at high levels despite their environment. Economically disadvantaged and minority students have the most to gain from higher standards--because they suffer the most from our current system of lower standards for some students. It's fundamentally unfair to them to expect them to achieve less than other young people, and to prepare them less completely than other young people.