Scrap the Regents exams? One councilmember wants to do just that

BOROUGHWIDE — A former educator and City Council member from Brooklyn wants to do away with the statewide high school Regents exams, demanding alternatives he says will better measure student success.

Councilmember Mark Treyger, who represents a swath of southern Brooklyn and once taught history and economics at New Utrecht High School in Bensonhurst, is planning on asking the state to abolish the standardized test, the Brooklyn Eaglehas learned.

The lawmaker, who also leads the council’s Committee on Education, is in the process of drafting a resolution that would ask for his colleagues’ support in “abolish[ing] the Regents exams” statewide. Instead, the former teacher would like to see cities in New York come up with their own recommendations for assessments, like project-based learning.

Speaking with the Eagle, Treyger pointed to the Every Students Succeeds Act, signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2015, and a flexible testing pilot program that came with it. Under ESSA, states may opt into a program called the “Innovative Assessment Pilot” if they want to explore other methods of measurement apart from the states’ annual exams.

But only a handful of states have taken advantage of the program — and New York has not been among them. In 2018, qualifying states were given until early April to apply for the program. In his resolution, Treyger, who said he is unaware of any forthcoming deadlines, will ask the state to opt in.

While the program allows states to come up with their own assessments of proficiency, Treyger said, there is still some cohesion across the country. “It’s not like there are states moving in wildly different directions,” he explained. “There are still standards.”

Those standards, he said, will allow colleges to consider student achievement in fields like fashion, robotics and culinary arts, as well as traditional courses like English (ELA), math and science. And rather than issuing exhaustive single-subject tests, states can test around smaller modules that help assess proficiency around student skills.

“The current process really holds kids back from a more robust curriculum,” he said, nodding to New Hampshire, where students participate in performative assessments every few weeks.

First administered in 1866, the New York State Regents Examinations are a set of required tests administered to high school students in core subjects like U.S. history, English and algebra. In most cases, a student must take and pass at least five to graduate, and almost all exams are three hours long.

“The former teacher in me knows that these exams do not really capture student abilities,” Treyger told the Eagle. “Critics say, ‘You’re gonna water down the stats,’ but what they define as rigor, I define as students in the library memorizing dates and names they’ll never use again for the rest of their lives.”

“I think there are more challenging, rigorous ways of measuring student performance, especially when more than half the country has already done away with end-of-year exams,” he said.

Growing support across New York and the nation

The number of states with existing or planned standardized high school exit exams dipped from 25 to 13 in 2017, according to the Washington Post. Today, New York is one of just 11 states that requires a high school exit exam, according to Ashley Grant, supervising staff attorney at Advocates for Children of New York.

Grant, who also serves as coordinator of the organization Coalition for Multiple Pathways to a Diploma, told the Eagle it’s about time New York reconsiders how it’s evaluating its students.

“All too often, particularly in the case of students with disabilities and multilingual learners, Regents exams serve as a barrier to college or career for students who have already demonstrated that they’ve mastered state standards and are prepared for adult life,” she said. “It’s time to bring New York up to speed with the rest of the nation and consider alternative ways for students to show they have met standards and are ready to graduate.”

Despite the exam’s deep roots, Treyger might have some backing from the Board of Regents itself. The panel announced last month that it will form a commission (the “Blue Ribbon Commission”) this fall to study — and potentially rethink — its current graduation policies.

“The Regents remain committed to moving forward with its review of what is necessary to earn a diploma in New York State. No decisions have been made at this point,” Education Department Spokesperson Emily DeSantis told the Eagle in an e-mail. DeSantis stressed that “the draft timeline presented at the July 2019 meeting was just that — [a] draft — and the Board wants to ensure ample time is provided to select members of the Commission and for it to carry out its work.”

The Board of Regents and the state’s Education Department have made it a priority to allow students to “demonstrate their proficiency to graduate in many ways,” DeSantis added, maintaining that the issue isn’t about changing graduation standards; it’s about “providing different avenues — equally rigorous — for kids to demonstrate they are ready to graduate with a meaningful diploma.”

Teaching to the child, not to the test

Paullette Ha-Healy, Parent Teacher Association president of Bay Ridge’s P.S. 264 in District 20, explained that the problems with the end-of-year exams extend into the rest of the school year — and sometimes, into the summer.

“I remember the day when Regents were taken only if you elected to acquire a Regents diploma or if you were attending a Specialized High School. There was a certain prestige associated with it,” she told the Eagle. “Now that it’s become the mandate, children are being fast-tracked to Regents prep programs — which are mostly after school and pay-per-session business models — or are forced to go to summer school or repeat the course.”

Ha-Healy has vocally opposed standardized testing and has opted her daughter outof elementary and middle school level exams, contending that the tests have a definite effect on her daughter’s mental health. (According to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, one in eight children suffers from an anxiety disorder.)

“This once again illustrates the big business high stakes testing has had on how we gauge how well our students are performing, and not a true reflection of what the child has learned,” Ha-Healy said. “I’m glad this proposal is being made because it [would allow] teachers to teach to the child and not to the test.”

Fort Hamilton High School English teacher Alex Hajjar believes that, though standardized testing has its benefits, the Regents exams “open up a major can of worms” — especially when it comes to Ha-Healy’s point of “teaching to the test.”

“I recognize the importance of state exams,” Hajjar told the Eagle. “They’re a way of objectively assessing students’ achievement.”

But, he said, there is a downside in that many teachers — whose jobs end up in danger if too many students fail too often — end up “teaching to the test,” especially in lower-performing schools.

“When teachers are forced to teach to the test, they and their students lose all room for creative expression,” Hajjar said.

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