NYC schools skip Regents exam, raise grad rates 

Graduation rates have soared at New York City schools that don’t require students to take Regents exams, reports the New York Post.

Ten percent of the city’s high schools are allowed to use alternatives to the state exam. Many are “international” schools that cater to immigrants who aren’t fluent in English.

Science students at Pan American International High in Queens.

Science students at Pan American International High in Queens.

Students qualify for graduation by writing essays, doing oral presentations and other projects that are graded by their own teachers.

The graduation rate at Pan American International HS in Queens went from 50 percent in 2014 to 76 percent in 2015, “leap-frogging past even the citywide average of 70 percent,” reports the Post.

Lyons Community School in Brooklyn raised its graduation rate from 46 percent to 65 percent, “while the International Community HS in The Bronx and International HS at Union Square in Manhattan both produced 18 percent spikes.”

Will these students be prepared for success in college or the workforce? Will the district track them to find out?

Teachers wear black to protest testing perk

Some teachers wore black T-shirts in protest as they wrapped up the school year at Southampton High School (New York), reports the Southampton Press. They disagreed with the principal’s decision to let a school employee’s anxious child take a Regents exam in a small room instead of the gym. The student has no disability diagnosis that requires special accommodation.

Dr. (Brian) Zahn, the principal, said two students were accommodated during end-of-year testing after showing symptoms of short-term disability brought on by anxiety, with one showing signs of nausea.

According to Dr. Zahn, some of the teachers wearing black shirts on Friday told him it was “to protest testing improprieties,” while others said it was “to voice our displeasure with testing overall.”

School was over, but students and staff were attending graduation rehearsal, and teachers were grading tests.

Dumbing down New York’s Regents exam

New York has dumbed down its Regents exam to avoid failing too many students, writes Michael Winerip in the New York Times. This year, for the first time, high schools students must score at least 65 on five exams — English, math, science, global history and U.S. history — to earn a diploma. But it’s easy to score 65, Winerip asserts. Literacy is optional.

The three-hour English test includes 25 multiple choice questions, an essay and two short responses. A student who gets 1’s on both responses is likely to reach 65, Winerip writes. What does it take to score a 1? The state teachers’ scoring guide gives an example of a 1-worthy short response:

These two Charater have very different mind Sets because they are creative in away that no one would imagen just put clay together and using leaves to create Art.

He also provides the start of an essay that deserves 4 out of 6 points, according to the guide:

In life, “no two people regard the world in exactly the same way,” as J. W. von Goethe says. Everyone sees and reacts to things in different ways. Even though they may see the world in similar ways, no two people’s views will ever be exactly the same. This statement is true since everyone sees things through different viewpoints.

I suppose one could argue that blathering, bluffing and echoing the words of authority figures are important workforce skills.

Winerip, never a fan of standards and accountability, doubts “there are new and higher standards, stronger curriculums and better tests just over the next hill to solve all our problems.”

“Four now,” he writes, “Wm. Shakespare must Be a turnover in his Grave (1 point).”

Massaging the Regents

Getting students to pass the Regents exam is “damn near everything,”, writes a Bronx high school teacher in New York Magazine‘s Workplace Confidential.

As teachers, we massage the tests to make sure if a kid is close to passing, he or she does. We don’t take a 30 and make it a 65, but we do our best to make that 62 a 65.

. . . This test is a requirement to pass high school and graduate. If the student doesn’t pass, the parent comes in screaming that he was a mere three points from passing. The principal hears it. Then we hear it. Then he ends up passing anyway. This is the norm. Seniors are the worst, because they feel so entitled that we have to cover our asses nineteen different ways to fail them. There have been stories of guidance counselors’ flat-out changing grades and passing ­seniors who should have failed but miraculously walked on graduation day.

Teachers are cogs in the system, the anonymous teacher writes.

Teachers can learn from tests

Once a foe of standardized testing, Ama Nyamekye improved her teaching by analyzing her students’ scores on New York’s Regents exam, she writes in Ed Week.  When she asked her sophomores to take the English Regents exam a year early, she discovered “holes in my curriculum.”

I once dismissed standardized testing for its narrow focus on a discrete set of skills, but I learned that my self-made assignments were more problematic. It turned out they were skewed in my favor. I was better at teaching literary analysis than grammar and punctuation. When I started giving ongoing standardized assessments, I noticed that my students showed steady growth in literary analysis, but less growth in grammar and punctuation. I was teaching to my strengths instead of strengthening my weaknesses.

Grading is subjective, she writes. Emotionally invested in her students’ success — and implicitly judging her own effectiveness — she was quick to see signs of achievement.

By contrast, her students’ Regents essays were graded by English teachers who didn’t know them and who used detailed rubrics.

When I “depoliticized” the test, I found a useful and flawed ally. The exam excelled where I struggled, offering comprehensive and standards-based assessments. I thrived where the test fell short, designing creative, performance-based projects. Together, we were strategic partners. I designed and graded innovative projects—my students participated in court trials for Shakespearean characters—and the test provided a rubric that guided my evaluation of student learning.

All her students who took the exam passed it. Most earned high scores.

Rap and rote

Students are rapping the Regents exam, reports the New York Times, which visits a U.S. history test-prep class for Spanish-speaking immigrants.

“Follow along closely so it won’t get convoluted,” (Jamel) Mims, 25, rapped, flicking his wrist to the beat. “The supreme law of the land is called the …”

He paused. The girls conferred in their native language, Spanish, scrambled for the marker, and hoisted their whiteboard into the air. “The Constitution!” they shouted in English, reading off their answer.

Fresh Prep, a program run by the Urban Arts Partnership, has raised $400,000 in donations to write Regents raps and deliver the review curriculum. The goal is to help students memorize facts and  “bridge the engagement gap,” Mr. Mims said.

Two dozen rap songs with rapid-fire lyrics . . .  review global history and American history. Students are given a 250-page workbook in which to fill in the blanks and write answers, and they are supposed to download the songs onto their MP3 players and memorize them at home.

So far, Fresh Prep claims more rap review students pass the exam, but says “hip-hop as a review method is hard to teach to a neophyte teacher. Now Urban Arts is revising its strategy to make sure a Fresh Prep artist instructor is always in the room.”  That sounds expensive.

Though I’m no connoisseur of hip hop, the rap seems impossibly “convoluted” in syntax, complex in vocabulary and downright dreadful. The students had trouble following the Constitution rap, even with a text, the reporter notes.

“First Amendment, that’s freedom of speech, needed that desperately
Freedom of expression, plus church and state separately
Right to bear arms the deuce, Third the quartering of troops
Four: protection from search and seizure unless a warrant is used.”

Let’s say the students memorize the words. Will they understand the ideas?

I was amused by this section:

Now the States had powers for themselves preserved
Powers not belonging to the Federal Gov. are Reserved
These include making drivers license regulations
Laws for marriage and divorce and standards for education.

Perhaps Arne Duncan should try a little rap review.


Diversity perversity on NY exam

New York’s Regents exam on Global History and Geography requires students to praise  Islamic conquerors and criticize Christian friars, writes Andrew Bostom on Pajamas Media.

Students read a textbook extract:

Wherever they went, the Moslems brought with them their love of art, beauty, and learning. From about the eighth to the eleventh century, their culture was superior in many ways to that of western Christendom.

Some of the finest centers of Moslem life were established in Spain. In Cordova, the streets were solidly paved, while at the same time in Paris people waded ankle-deep in mud after a rain. Cordovan public lamps lighted roads for as far as ten miles; yet seven hundred years later there was still not a single public lamp in London!

Guidelines call for awarding one credit, up to a maximum of two credits, “for each different way Islam improved the lives of people in Spain.”

No points are given for describing “massacre, pillage, deportation, and mass enslavement” including turning female captives into harem slaves and males into eunuchs, Bostom complains.

Students also read an extract on how friars converted natives to Christianity in Spanish America.

Award 1 credit (up to a maximum of 2 credits) for each different change the friars introduced in Spanish America. Examples: destroying idols/temples; building permanent monasteries; constructing Christian buildings on sites of destroyed native temples; building temporary/permanent churches; holding services/fiestas in church buildings in a converted community; attempting to destroy paganism.

As a Jew, I have no dog in the fight between the Moors and the Christians in Spain. Nor do I think Spanish missionaries were models of tolerance in the New World. But I do wonder why it’s OK to criticize Christians, but other religions are sacrosanct.

Teachers are complaining about the lack of balance, reports the New York Post.

Now, fix the Regents exams

Now that New York has raised its definition of proficiency in exams for grades three through eight, it’s time to fix the high school Regents exams, writes Marc Epstein in City Journal. The Regents have been dumbed down, charges Epstein, a high school history teacher in New York City.

The Global History and Geography Regents requires no knowledge or geography, he writes.

One handout shows a man sitting in a pedicab while the driver tries to walk the bicycle pulling the passenger through about three or four feet of water. The question asks: “What was one problem that people in the Varanasi region of India faced once the 1983 summer monsoons arrived, based on this National Geographic photograph and its caption?” If you couldn’t figure it out just by looking at the picture, the caption informs you that there was flooding and sewage, along with floating animal carcasses.

. . . A second part of the test, known as the thematic essay, asks the student to write about change and ideas, selecting two famous people—from a list including Nelson Mandela, Karl Marx, Galileo, and Mikhail Gorbachev—and explaining a specific idea the individuals developed, the historical circumstances surrounding its development, and how it influenced a group, a nation, or a region. After two years of global history, it’s safe to say that even your marginal students can find something to say about Marx and Communism or Mandela and apartheid.

The U.S. History and Government exam asked students to “write about the positive and negative effects of technology on the American society and economy,” a “rehashed question” from an old test designed for special-needs students or those who couldn’t pass the Regents exam, Epstein writes.

The document-based questions on the History exam were just as risible. A cartoon from the National Temperance Almanac depicts a saloonkeeper laying bricks around the entrance to his saloon—with the bricks labeled “wrecked lives,” ruined fortunes,” “lost virtue,” and “ruined characters.” The question then asks the student to state two effects that alcohol had on American society.

Students can pass by answering only one of two essay questions if they do well enough on the multiple-choice and document-based questions.

Proficient should mean college ready, backed up by automatic admission to a state  university, writes Core Knowledge’s Robert Pondiscio on Answer Sheet.

For low-income families with high aspirations but little educational experience, all they know is what the state and public schools tell them. And they’ve been misled. Seeing their children through the K-12 pipeline with a clear picture of readiness and a guaranteed college acceptance would likely be the difference between success and failure.

“’Proficiency’ on our exams has to mean something real,” (New York Education Commissioner David) Steiner wrote recently. “No good purpose is served when we say that a child is proficient when that child simply is not.”

Sol Stern writes about the history of New York’s testing mess in National Review.

New York may raise Regents bar

New York’s Regents diploma “doesn’t mean college-ready,” says Merryl Tisch, Regents chancellor. So the test will get harder, even though that’s likely to depress rising graduation rates.

Seventy-five percent of New York City’s high school graduates who go on to City University require remedial math and/or English classes, Tisch complains. The class of 2011 will face a higher standard.

In 2009,  59 percent of city students passed the Regents and earned a diploma, up from 46.5 percent in 2005. That’s likely to decline.

Tisch also wants to end the practice of letting teachers grade their own students’ Regents exams. By the 2011-12 school year, all exam answer sheets will be scanned and submitted to the state for analysis. That “could include checking for suspicious erasures or unusual answer clusters that may suggest cheating,” reports the Wall Street Journal.

Bring back differential diplomas

All New York students must pass Regents exams in math, English, science and social studies to earn a diploma this year.  Writing in City Journal, teacher Marc Epstein predicts a diploma drought.

Once only college-bound students attempted to earn a rigorous Regents diploma, he writes. Other students earned a general diploma; in some towns, schools offered a commercial diploma or vocational diploma to help graduates qualify for jobs. But that system was dropped when critics charged it directed minority students into the workforce rather than on to college.

The state’s new “one size fits all” diploma standard means that special-education students must pass the same English and history Regents as students attending Stuyvesant High. It also means that either the Regents exams have to be altered or the grading requirements adjusted to avoid a huge drop-off in passing scores.

Meryl Tisch, the new Regents chancellor, and David Steiner, the state commissioner of education, want to make the Regents tests more rigorous. The only sensible way to do that is to bring back the differential diploma, Epstein argues. That would require the political courage to “challenge the now-conventional bias in favor of routing all kids toward a college diploma of one kind or another.”

Update: Inside School Research reports on dueling studies on the effects of tracking students.  While a Fordham study found that higher math scores in tracked middle schools, University of Colorado Education Professor Kevin Weiner says “the research doesn’t account for differences in resource levels, teacher quality, parents’ education levels, and other factors that might explain the higher numbers of top-scoring students in schools with multiple tracks.”  His new study profiles three successful untracked schools.