What should you do if you’re throwing an office party but you can’t store food in the company refrigerator — cancel the party, hide the food and hope no one notices, or politely ask for permission?
What if your coworkers are grumbling about the new dress code mandating starched shirts? Should you refuse to follow the code, join their protests, or work together to suggest a change?
Students in New York state can now earn a high school diploma, in part, by answering questions like those.
Students still need to pass the famously rigorous Regents exams in order to graduate, too. But recent changes, sparked by growing criticism about students trapped by tougher graduation requirements, mean that instead of passing five, they only need to pass four. A work-readiness credential can now replace the fifth.
Among the ways students can earn that credential: passing a multiple-choice test designed to assess broad entry-level work skills. The tests emphasize real-life situations and peg questions to middle school-level reading and math skills.
State officials say new option will help more students get to graduation — and allow students to show they have what it takes to succeed in the workplace. But some are now worried that it could be simple enough to allow any student to circumvent higher-level work.
”I think you’re creating an opportunity which is more or less a universal opportunity” to check off a graduation requirement, James Tallon, a member of New York’s Board of Regents, said about the credential last month.
The idea was that students would spend hundreds of hours on vocational coursework and job shadowing. One option for earning the credential — designed in 2013 for students with disabilities — has students spend 216 hours on a combination of coursework and work-based learning.
But the regulation also allows students to forgo that path for one of four approved work-readiness tests — potentially a more attractive option for schools under pressure to get more students over the finish line.
State officials defended the exams, saying that they require preparation and noting that schools must also offer work experience. The rules do not say students have to participate, though. And with graduation just months away, some schools are exploring the test option for this year’s seniors.
“There is no way to get kids, at this point, [option] number one for this year,” said Erin Stark, director of special education at New Visions for Public Schools, which operates seven charter high schools in the city. “There isn’t enough time.”
Last year, New York began allowing students to swap in another test for one of their five required Regents exams. Some of the new options require career training in subjects such as accounting and welding, and officials say they are meant to help students who are unlikely to go to college gain valuable skills that they can deploy immediately after graduation.
The new work-readiness option has also raised eyebrows among some involved with career and technical programs, who see a double standard emerging.
Over the past few years, the state convened a “blue ribbon” commission complete with a study by researchers from Harvard and Cornell to ensure that the technical exams approved to take the place of Regents exams were comparable and rigorous.
Connie Costley, the president of the New York State Association for Career and Technical Education and a teacher in Kingston, New York, fears students will use the new pathway to avoid more challenging — and useful — courses.
“We question whether it has the rigor that the Regents exams does,” Costley said. “A lot of time and energy and money went into saying, if you pass this [CTE] exam, it has to be equal.”
The work-readiness exams do not aspire to test the same skills as Regents or CTE exams, and state officials said making direct comparisons between the two was unfair.
It is unclear how many students could end up graduating because of the credential. About 1,800 students earned the CDOS credential last year, when it was available only for students with disabilities and didn’t help students earn a traditional diploma.
Some high schools have someone like Stark calling their attention to the testing option, but others are just starting to investigate what the credential could mean for their students.
At Brooklyn’s Abraham Lincoln High School, principal Ari Hoogenboom is hopeful that the new pathway will be a big boost for those on the edge of graduating. While discussing the option requiring work-based experience, Hoogenboom said it might allow up to 30 additional students to graduate high school.
“I don’t just want to graduate kids for the sake of graduating them, but at the same time, at a certain point, [failing students] almost seems abusive,” Hoogenboom said.
That was the logic used by Regents as they approved the new option, which was passed as an emergency regulation that the board must vote to make permanent in June. Back in March, some Regents raised concerns about the credential’s rigor. But those were eventually outweighed by a desire to help students graduate this year.
“If I’m going to err,” Regent Beverly Ouderkirk said before the vote, “I want to err on the side of kids.”
Update: This story was updated to reflect that Erin Stark, the director of special education at New Visions for Public Schools, works with seven charter high schools in the city.