“If it hadn’t been for being seen beyond the grades, I wouldn’t be here today.”
BENSONHURST — During an emotional, five-hour City Council hearing on high-stakes testing, education advocates spoke out against the notion of “teaching to the test” and called on the city to help rebalance the scales of a school system that labels students like actor Anthony Ramos as underperforming.
Ramos — the 27-year-old New Utrecht High School graduate who went on to act in Broadway’s Hamilton and star alongside A-listers in the 2018 remake of “A Star is Born” — told the room Tuesday that he barely made it out of high school after failing many of his Regents exams.
“I was not a good test-taker,” he said. “I almost didn’t graduate because I failed my earth science Regents three times. Thank God we found another way.”
The former baseball player’s path to stardom began in the halls of the Bensonhurst high school, where he met educator Sara Steinweiss and joined the school’s theater guild. Steinweiss later helped the Bushwick native apply for the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, an intensive performing arts conservancy in Manhattan with a price tag out of his league.
With the support of Steinweiss, Ramos scored a full ride from the Seinfeld Scholarship Program. But it wasn’t his grades that got him his shot, he said.
“If it hadn’t been for being seen beyond the grades, I wouldn’t be here today,” Ramos said, calling on the city to do more to protect programs like the theater guild, which was later cut from his alma mater.
“As a former student of the New York City public school system and a Brooklyn native, I just ask that we push a little harder to find a way to keep the funding for these programs, focus less on testing and just balance it out and say, ‘Okay, this kid is weak at testing but strong at this extracurricular,’” he said. “Then maybe these extracurriculars can become a part of the curriculum.”
Steinweiss, who joined Ramos for his impassioned testimony, told the room that she resigned from the DOE in 2011 after more than a decade of following in her late father’s footsteps. Part of the reason, she said, was that teaching to the test took away the joy most educators go into the field for.
“I gave Anthony this dream,” said Steinweiss, who founded the NUHS theater program back when she was a senior there. “But, without the Seinfeld Foundation, there was no other path for him to go. Because his grades were so poor, scholarships were not available to him.”
She hopes both the city and state education departments will examine other pathways to success, and consider giving students more of a choice when it comes to their curriculum.
“We talk about choices with choosing different schools, but what about a kid’s choice to choose what they want to be in life? Where is their choice in that within the education system?,” she said.
Other advocates in the room drew on Ramos’ experiences to further the argument that exams like the Regents — which Brooklyn Councilmember Mark Treyger has already said he wants to abolish — do not accurately portray a student’s individual success, and that a child’s future should not rely so heavily on select grades.
“One of the most interesting ironies is that one of the most talented Broadway performers to ever take the stage, our school system labeled him as underperforming,” said Treyger, who leads the council’s education committee and once taught at New Utrecht.
“He is an extraordinary talent,” he added, stressing that there are countless other students whose paths don’t lead where Ramos’ did, due to their grades.
Councilmember Robert Cornegy — who looks back fondly on his time in the high school jazz band — called Ramos’ story the perfect example of why the city should be breaking test culture. “We are robbing the world of the ability to benefit from the gifts that all students have,” he said.
The city’s Department of Education didn’t disagree.
“There is a greatness that Anthony Ramos represents in every student across this city,” said Linda Chen, chief academic officer of the NYCDOE.
When asked by Treyger if the department still labels students as underperforming, Chen appeared to dodge the question. She did, however, double down on the agency’s desire to determine other pathways to success.
“We stand by wanting to ensure that we have multiple pathways to view our students and their competencies,” she said, adding that a lot of these decisions ultimately end up in the hands of the State Education Department. (The Board of Regents announced earlier this summer that it will form a commission this fall to study — and potentially rethink — its current graduation policies.)
Advocates want the city DOE to do its part as well.
Ashley Grant, supervising staff attorney at Advocates for Children of New York told the story of a girl she called Myra — a bright student who did well in her classes, maintained a B average and earned more than 50 credits (far exceeding the coursework required for a Regents diploma). But, she struggled to pass the English Language Arts Regents exam.
“After completing all of her other graduation requirements at age 19, rather than going on to college, Myra had to spend two years studying for and re-taking the ELA exam. Eventually, after taking the exam seven times, she finally passed it at the age of 21,” said Grant, who also serves as coordinator of the organization Coalition for Multiple Pathways to a Diploma.
“Eventually, Myra went on to attend college, where she did well. But, if she had been able to show her mastery of ELA standards another way — through a performance-based assessment, her coursework, or a capstone project — Myra could have spent those two years working toward her college degree rather than retaking a single test.”
To help others like Myra and Ramos, Grant said, AFC is “urging New York City to make changes to ensure that all students have access to existing pathways that do not rely solely on high-stakes tests.”
Steinweiss agreed. “I think the DOE is a profound system and I think it does a lot of tremendous, phenomenal work for our kids, but there is a great need for improvement,” she said. “Hearings like this are exciting because it’s about time we look at alternate ways to assess our students.”