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NY Keeps Raising The Bar For Graduation

Tayshaun Williams (third from left) poses with Autumn Loke (left) and students from his tutoring group.

It’s 85 degrees and lunchtime at Binghamton High School. Here, students can leave school for lunch. Some head to nearby fast food restaurants, and everyone’s out enjoying the beautiful day.

Well, not everyone.

Tayshaun Williams sits inside with his tutor, Ali Wasserman. She walks him through a trigonometry problem. The lesson is supposed to get Williams ready for the Algebra Regents exam, one of the end-of-course tests that New York high-schoolers have to pass to graduate. Williams says another of the Regents overshadows even trigonometry. He explains why the global history and geography test is the hardest of them all.

“It’s everything from ninth and tenth grade, so you’ve got to remember everything from ninth and tenth grade,” he says. “Then when you’re in tenth grade, you’re not learning all the old stuff. They don’t go over it again.”

Williams has failed the global Regents twice already. This month he’ll give the test a third try.

“You get in, and you have I think two or three hours to take it,” he says, describing test day, “And you’re sweating and you’re really stressed out.”

It hasn’t always been this way in New York. Students who couldn’t pass the required five Regents exams used to be able to get an alternative diploma and still graduate. Since 2001, though, the state has been raising the bar. And in 2012 it eliminated the alternative option altogether except for students with disabilities.

Despite the rising expectations, New York’s graduation rate has held steady at 77 percent.

Tutoring programs may be picking up some of the slack. Tayshaun Williams says he’s in two: one during the day and one after hours that he calls “twilight school.”

“I go to school, then twilight, then go straight to work. Every day,” he says.

It’s a lot. And for students who are really interested in one thing, like a specific career track, but don’t care much about, say, global history, it can be frustrating. The state relented just a bit this January. Students can now replace one Regents with a test in a different subject.

Autumn Loke runs Williams’ day-time tutoring and says she doesn’t want him to depend on this new escape hatch.

“It’s more than just, ‘Ok, there’s another pathway so let’s take this,’” she says. “It’s a lesson to be learned: You work hard, and it pays off.”

And Williams? He’s feeling good about his next go at the test.

“Yeah I’m pretty sure, I’m positive I’ll pass it this time,” he says. If he does? “I would be so happy, so happy. I might cry.”

Tayshaun Williams and the rest of New York’s high-schoolers started Regents tests on June 2.