Everything You Need to Know about the New York State Regents Exams

New York State’s Regents exams are a rite of passage for many high schoolers. Learn about the goals and structure of the Regents system to help your child face these academic hurdles with confidence.

Each year in June, students in some middle schools and most high schools across New York State will take Regents exams. These standardized tests determine whether students have met the required educational standards to receive a high school diploma. Students and parents may anticipate these assessments with a degree of worry, but understanding what they’re all about can help alleviate the pressure that families feel about these educational hurdles.

Overview

First administered to high school students in June 1878, the Regents exam system replaced a patchwork of learning goals and curricula, which differed across New York State, with a single set of academic standards for all students. One of the principal goals of the exams was to ensure that students graduating from NYS high schools would have the necessary core knowledge to move on to college or directly into the workforce following high school.

Regents and the Common Core

Today, NYS is undergoing another transition as it aligns these (and other) state assessments with the Common Core Learning Standards (CCLS) that the state adopted in 2010. Students who are now taking Regents exams may have received instruction based on either the old learning standards or the newer CCLS. To accommodate both sets of students, the CCLS-based tests are being phased in over time to enable students to take whichever version is suitable for the learning goals of their courses. For example, the Common Core–aligned English Regents exam was first released in June 2014, though students whose English instruction was founded on the previous set of learning standards will be able to take the old version through June 2016. Similarly, there are two exams for Algebra, and students may sit for either version through the June 2015 administration. For a limited time, some students will even have the option of taking both exams and applying the higher score toward their Regents diploma.

To learn more about the schedule that the New York State Education Department is following for old and new exams, read the NYS instructions to superintendents regarding the schedule for phasing in the new tests.

Goals of the Regents Exams

The Regents exams mark a major milestone in students’ educational lives. They are accordingly designed to achieve two important goals.

Assessing Student Achievement

Just as state assessments for students in third through eighth grades are used to measure student achievement annually, New York State’s Regents exams provide comparable feedback for high schoolers. Families and educators are able to learn whether students have met the standards that are considered essential for the next step in a student’s life, whether this is enrolling in college or beginning a career directly after high school.

There are four required subject areas that students are tested on: math, English, science, and social studies. In order to receive a Regents diploma, most high schoolers must pass a minimum of 22 credits in required courses and receive a score of 65 or above on at least five Regents exams. Note that there are a number of other standardized tests, such as AP exams or particular SAT subject tests, that can be substituted for Regents exams. To see a list of options, visit the New York State Department-Approved Alternative Assessments list.

Students may begin taking Regents exams as early as middle school — if they are enrolled in high school–level courses — though most learners take the tests as they complete the relevant subjects in high school. Students also have the option of retaking, as often as needed, any test on which they do not attain a passing score of 65 or above.

Measuring Teacher and School Effectiveness

In addition to providing students with feedback on their academic achievement, Regents exams are used as a tool to hold schools and teachers accountable for student performance. Aggregate test results are reported on annual school report cards, such as those found on the high school profiles on Noodle. These results help highlight schools that are in need of further support to ensure that all of their students meet essential academic standards.

Student Profiles and Regents Exams

While a great many young New Yorkers take the Regents exams each year, not all are required to. Typically, for instance, public school students do take the exams, and private school students may — but there are exceptions in both cases.

Public School Students

Nearly all public schools in New York are required to follow the Regents exam system. The notable exception is a group of 28 public high schools, most of which are located in New York City, belonging to the New York Performance Standards Consortium. The consortium has permission from the New York State Education Department to use alternative forms of assessment, including student research papers, essays, projects, and science experiments that comprise portfolios of academic work. These, in turn, are evaluated by teachers qualified in each required subject area. Students who attend Consortium schools are, however, required to take the Regents English exam.

Private School Students

Many private and parochial schools require their students to take the Regents exams, though not all participate in the system. Some argue that their own year-end assessments are more rigorous than the Regents exams and better align with the high academic standards these schools have set for their students.

Special Needs Students

Like their non-disabled peers, students with disabilities are also expected to take Regents exams. While NYS once offered learners with Individualized Educational Plans (IEPs) or 504 accommodations the option of taking Regents Competency Tests (RCTs), which evaluate basic proficiency in English, math, science, and social studies, this option was eliminated for students who entered ninth grade after 2011. The reasoning behind the decision was that, with relatively few exceptions, students with disabilities are just as capable of meeting the same benchmark academic standards as non-disabled students, and that offering this alternative assessment system implicitly encouraged schools to treat these learners as less able, a course of action that in turn limited their future academic and professional choices.

Students with IEPs or 504 accommodations who no longer have the option of taking RCTs but whose disability makes it difficult or impossible to achieve passing scores on all five Regents exams have two alternative pathways to attain a high school diploma. The first is known as the “Low-Pass Safety Net Option,” which enables students who can score between 55–64 on all five Regents exams to earn a Local Diploma and graduate from high school. The second alternative for gaining a Local Diploma is called the “Compensatory Safety Net Option,” and it allows students to offset a score of 45–54 on any exam besides math or English with a score of 65 or above from one of the other Regents exams.

English-Language Learners (ELLs)

Because all Regents tests are, to a large degree, language-based, students who are English-language learners may struggle to attain scores of 65 or above on all five required tests. For these students, it is still possible — if an appeal is granted by their local school district — to earn a Local Diploma by scoring 65 or above on four exams and 55–61 on the English exam. Alternatively, ELL students can score 65 or above on three tests, 62–64 on a fourth, and 55–61 on the English exam, again with an approved appeal from their local school district. To read more about the details of these options, visit the New York State Diploma Credentials guide. For information about the appeals process specifically, there is further information on the New York State Education Department website.

Types of Regents Diplomas

There are two levels of Regents diplomas offered in NYS:

Regents Diploma

This type of diploma requires a score of 65 or above on all five of the following exams:

  • Comprehensive English exam or English Language Arts exam (aligned to Common Core standards)
  • Any single math exam, such as Integrated Algebra or Algebra I (aligned to Common Core standards), Geometry, or Algebra II/Trigonometry
  • Any social studies exam, such as Global History and Geography or U.S. History and Government
  • Any science exam, such as Earth Science, Living Environment, Chemistry, or Physics
  • Any additional Regents exam approved by the state

Regents with Advanced Designation Diploma

A mark of higher achievement, this diploma requires a score of 65 or more on a total of nine exams:

  • Comprehensive English exam or English Language Arts (aligned to Common Core standards)
  • All three math exams, including Integrated Algebra or Algebra I (aligned to Common Core standards), Geometry, and Algebra II/Trigonometry
  • Any social studies exam, such as Global History and Geography or U.S. History and Government
  • Two science exams, such as Earth Science, Living Environment, Chemistry, or Physics
  • Any additional Regents exam approved by the state
  • Any one Language Other than English (LOTE) exam
  • NYSED no longer offers Regents exams in foreign languages, but students may complete six course credits in the language and take a LOTE exam developed by their local district to fulfill this requirement.
  • Students can also earn an Honors designation on either the Regents or Regents with Advanced Designation if they score 90 or above on all required exams. In addition, there are specific recognitions in arts, math, science, and continuing technical education (CTE) for students who meet the criteria in these areas.

Details of the Different Exams

Most written Regents exams take up to three hours to complete. The Earth Science exam has an additional laboratory component, which is taken two weeks before the written exam and consists of six tasks six minutes each.

Test questions fall into the following categories:

  • Multiple-choice
  • Essay
  • Open-ended, in which students calculate the answer to a question and must show both the numerical answer and the work they used to arrive at the answer
  • Constructed-response, in which students must calculate answers by constructing graphs, formulating hypotheses, evaluating experimental designs, or drawing conclusions based on given data
  • Extended constructed-response, which require students to apply knowledge and skills to real-world problems Below is an overview of the exams required for the Regents diploma. Unless otherwise stated, schools decide when their students will take each test.

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Want to get prepped to ace the Regents exams? Continue reading Yamini Pathak's expert advice about preparing for the Regents.

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