Put to the Test

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High school senior Rakhi Hossain has spent a lot of time thinking about what her life will be like after graduation. After considering becoming a teacher, she decided that she wanted to be a nurse. But last June, her vision of the future began and ended with just one thing: the Regents test she just learned she would have to take that month in order to graduate. She spent the month doing nothing but cramming.

This was no small challenge. Her school, the Long Island City-based International Charter High, is for immigrants who have scored poorly on standardized English tests. And now Rakhi and her classmates would have to take a standardized tes–in English Language Arts–to graduate.

Rakhi (not her real name) had already finished the other graduation requirements, including oral exams about a series of senior projects. One was a model of a Greek temple, to demonstrate the principles of geometry. She analyzed poetry in Bengali, her native language. In other coursework, she had studied history, learning about people “who came to this country centuries ago looking for a better life, like many of us,” she wrote. Through it all, she had become fluent in English through the school’s full-immersion approach.

But one thing she hadn’t learned was how to beat a multiple-choice test. With almost no time to act, her school had fought, and lost, a court battle to extend its exemption from New York State’s new requirement that all high school seniors take Regents exams in order to graduate. International High is one of about 40 schools in the city to use “portfolio performance assessments” of research papers and other in-depth projects, instead of standardized exams, to measure student achievement.

The last-minute mandate to take an English exam–the one test currently needed for graduation as the Regents requirement is phased in statewide–was not something anyone had expected. “We had permission not to prepare them for four and a half years,” says principal Eric Nadelstern. “We were caught by surprise. It’s a terrible way to end the year.”

Suddenly, everything Rakhi had learned did not matter. “In my own country, this would never happen,” she marvels, “to get a test you had only two weeks to prepare for.”

She failed the Regents Comprehensive Test in English, a less rigorous version of the standard exam. So did 13 of her classmates. Rakhi spent the summer cramming to take the test again in the fall. And again, she failed, along with seven other students. Although she passed the writing part of the test this time, she missed the reading section by one point.

Rakhi was humiliated. In her family, educational achievement is the measure of a person’s worth. One relative who did not go to college was even disowned. Her father, who had been a teacher in Bangladesh, keeps reminding her that she is the first person in the family to be held back in school. “I have to listen to that every day,” she says. She is still so ashamed that she decided she didn’t want her name used in this story. For now, she is taking courses at LaGuardia Community College and is hoping to finally pass the test when she takes it again in January.

The test hit the students at International High hard. But even if they had all year to prepare, it might not have made much of a difference. Of the estimated 15,000 high school seniors in New York City who speak little to no English–known by the Board of Education as English language learners, or ELLs–40 percent did not even take the Regents at all last June. Of those who took it, about half scored higher than 55, which allowed them to graduate. But next year, as the Regents requirement is phased in, they will have to score 65 to pass. Just 7.4 percent of English language learners scored above that. And that’s out of the ones who actually made it to the finish line: Almost a quarter of the class of 2000’s ELLs dropped out before graduation. Nearly 55 percent have been held back one or two years.

Teenage immigrants arrive in New York wanting to learn quickly, graduate on time and get on with their lives. But students who haven’t mastered English are now stuck. The state has repeatedly rebuffed pleas to create an alternative graduation requirement for them. At the same time, say advocates for immigrants, schools don’t have the resources–particularly enough qualified bilingual and English as a Second Language teachers–to help students get up to speed to pass the Regents in the limited time they have.

“We are supportive of higher standards for English language skills,” says Margaret McHugh, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, one of several groups now suing the state to demand a graduation requirement that doesn’t condemn immigrant students to failure. “The question is whether the state has given the students an opportunity to meet the expectations.”

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At International Charter High, students come from more than 60 nations, and arrive speaking 40 languages. All of them immediately plunge into speaking, reading and writing English. The school tries to keep classes small, and then break students into smaller clusters to hold discussions. The idea is to encourage students to think creatively and rigorously. “It’s a move away from memorization to research papers,” says Nadelstern. “The instruction is less traditional.”

International has strict entrance requirements. With a student body of 430, it can enroll about half of the students who enter a lottery and meet the criteria. Applicants must have lived in the U.S. for less than four years and have scored lower than the 21st percentile on standardized English tests. Considering where its students start, its accomplishments are impressive: About 20 percent graduate in four years and head right off to college. Taking advantage of the school’s on-campus location, many students also take college courses at LaGuardia Community College while they’re still enrolled in high school.

Under International’s portfolio system, students learn by sharpening ideas and revising drafts and projects until they pass muster. Each part of the portfolio they submit for graduation–including a scientific experiment, a social science report and a literary essay–must appear in perfect English, redone as many times as it takes. And every requirement is designed to adhere to New York State’s education standards.

The process also brings bashful teens out of their shells. Students who arrive shy and retiring eventually develop the social and language skills to carry off an academic conversation with four or five adults–another test they’ll have to pass to graduate. “Students learn the language by using it,” says Nadelstern, formerly president of the New York State Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages and ex-chair of the state commissioner’s Advisory Council on Bilingual Education.

Recognizing the value of portfolio assessments, in 1995 then-State Education Commissioner Thomas Sobol granted two dozen schools, including International High, a five-year variance allowing them to use portfolio assessments as a qualification for a Regents diploma, which at the time conferred honors. He would later write that he did so because “there is more than one effective way to educate high school students, and more than one effective way to assess their progress.”

The New York State Education Department now disagrees. It insists that all students in the state pass the Regents to graduate, with the exception of students with severe learning disabilities. Determined to impose those tests as quickly as possible, NYSED seized on a change in International High’s legal status–its switch in August 1999 from a Board of Education school to an independent charter school–as an opportunity to force students into taking the exam a year before Sobol’s waiver ran out.

Associate Commissioner of Education Roseanne DeFabio asserts that the state’s policy of allowing immigrant students to remain in school until they turn 21 will take care of students who can’t pass the test on their first tries. “Even if someone comes in at 17,” she says, “he has four years in New York State to reach a level of proficiency to get a diploma.”

DeFabio equates the Regents exams with an Olympics event. They are a demonstration of skill, she says, the “common evidence” of meeting the standards. The tests are geared to prepare students for entry level jobs or college. Department officials say they are making a statement–to the world, to business leaders, to future employers and to colleges–that only students who have a demonstrated the Regents level of proficiency will carry New York’s diploma.

Without apologies, New York State and Governor George Pataki have joined the national movement to make standardized exams the final word on student achievement. Under Commissioner Richard P. Mills, New York has been aggressive in imposing standards and exams. Students already have to pass tests to move from grade to grade. But this year was the first time they also had to take an exam to graduate.

Just four months after arriving in Albany, Mills announced an end to minimum competency tests for graduation, which had been left over from a previous reform era. Shortly after, he announced that beginning with the class of 2000, all students must pass Regents examinations to graduate. And the only degree the state’s high schools would henceforth offer would be the Regents Diploma, which until then had been awarded as a special distinction for college-bound students.

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Among educators, the use of a single test as a graduation requirement is extremely controversial. Students commonly have to pass exams to get into college, but no other country in the world makes students pass a test simply to get out of high school. The American Educational Research Association, the American Psychological Association, the National Council on Measurement in Education, the National Academy of Sciences, the National Education Association, and even the PTA oppose the use of a single test to determine whether a student will graduate. Almost alone in its endorsement of using tests this way is the American Federation of Teachers.

But politicians love spouting the statistics of improved results. Visible and easy to report to the press, “new test or assessment requirements can be implemented within the term of office of selected officials,” writes Robert Linn, an educational policy analyst with the University of Colorado and consultant to many states, including New York.

To many education policy experts, state officials are the ones who need remedial math. States that have imposed graduation tests, they point out, have also seen their dropout rates shoot up. In Texas, when a graduation test was first introduced, the dropout rate for black and Hispanic students went up 50 percent in a single year. Because those who leave school tend to be among the poorer test-takers, test scores look strong–but that’s partly because many students who would have scored the worst never even take the test.

Education reform advocates have watched their hopes for high standards turn to dismay. Sara Schwabacher, vice-president of New Visions Schools, a Manhattan-based organization that promotes educational innovation, still praises the early days of the standards movement. As she sees it, clearly articulated expectations to hold teachers accountable put the responsibility on teachers to do their jobs effectively and give all children an opportunity to learn. Now, however, Schwabacher looks at the same standards and sees them smothered by standardized testing. “The movement to teach standards,” she says, “is being corrupted by teaching to the tests.”

Thomas Sobol, now a professor at Teachers College, still fervently believes in promoting high educational standards across the board. “If we frame new standards and assessments that require students to apply their knowledge, to raise new questions, to think with what they are learning as well as to memorize it,” Sobol says now, “we can go a long way toward improving their education.”

But maintaining high standards, he still contends, does not obligate every New York school to use the same method of measuring student achievement. Relying on testing as a graduation standard, fears Sobol, stifles students’ critical and creative thinking. Even worse, he says, it leaves a lot of them unable to make it out the other side. “What about the students who learn differently–those, for example, who reach intelligent solutions to problems in unconventional ways, or in ways they cannot explain?” he asks. “What about immigrant children who enter our system in midstream?

“What’s going on,” says Sobol, “is a perversion of the original intent.”

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Not surprisingly, the Regents requirement will hit hardest in New York City, which is home to 80 percent of the state’s English language learners. There are more than 156,000 of these kids in the public schools. Spanish-speakers constitute the largest group of students. Next come those whose native language is Chinese, Russian, Haitian Creole, Bengali, Urdu, Arabic or Korean.

City schools already have a serious job on their hands. Facing the largest wave of immigration since 1910, they have had to stretch to meet their basic obligations for English language instruction, either in bilingual programs or in ESL classes.

In schools that are sufficiently staffed, most students can choose between bilingual and ESL instruction. Roughly equal number of students enroll in each. In bilingual classes, students learn most of the curriculum in their native language, then study English in English.

ESL classes are supposed to do one thing: get students’ English up to snuff so they can succeed in their other coursework. It is not designed to get students to the state’s graduation standard, which calls for students to read, write, listen and speak with close attention to critical analysis, information, understanding and evaluation–all, of course, in English.

But even when it’s well taught, ESL takes time to take hold. Even after four years, students in ESL classes may still be memorizing words, not speaking or reading the language, says Paul Harrison, assistant principal at a Bronx high school. “In ESL classes, you put plaques on the door with the word ‘door,’ on the window with the word ‘window,’ on the closet with the word ‘closet.’ ESL teachers are not teaching hard literature,” he says.

And both programs are facing crippling shortages of certified teachers, social workers and psychologists. Curriculum materials are also in short supply. ESL courses are overcrowded; classes of 35 to 40 students are not uncommon. The Regents are also well aware of the problems facing bilingual education: They granted a waiver allowing the Board of Education to hire uncertified bilingual teachers, who now teach nearly 40 percent of all students enrolled in the programs. Many of the teachers do not even speak the native language of the children in their classes.

The English Regents exam requires subtle shadings such as the ability to recognize motive, character, plot and voice of literary and popular figures. Educators say, and the Regents acknowledge, that the test requires a level of academic comprehension and expression that takes four to seven years to develop–longer than many of the students taking the test have even lived in the United States.

“ELLs realize that remaining in school will earn them neither the instruction they crave nor a high school diploma,” McHugh wrote to Regents Chancellor Carl Hayden in May. Lately, McHugh has been hearing reports of teenagers showing up for ESL classes for adults in Queens, telling the instructors they have been counseled not to waste their time staying in high school and trying to pass an impossible exam. “The worst aspect is the climbing dropout rate for ELLs,” says McHugh. “The move to higher standards was supposed to improve education overall, not just reduce the number of students we were choosing to educate.”

The state has responded to the crisis by issuing a list of recommended measures schools can take to help immigrant students pass the tests. They include extra weekend and evening classes, outreach to parents, additional teacher training, more teachers, and more carefully aligning class work to the tests. But without enough resources, observes McHugh, expecting students to graduate just isn’t realistic. “Standards are for the system, not just students,” she says.

At least one Regent agrees with McHugh. “Overnight, we’re not going to fix a system with institutionalized failure,” says Regent Ricardo E. Oquendo.

But the Regents mandate is already here, and for students, there are no waivers. Education reformers say it’s a guaranteed path to failure. “You can’t just say, ‘We’re going to bring in these tests, and if the kids fail, we hope that the districts are going to provide the resources to help them,'” says Fruchter, director of New York University’s Institute for Social Policy in Education. “Putting the screws on top to improve the system makes kids hostage. A lot of kids will pay the penalty of not having a safety net in place.”

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The difficulties immigrant students have had passing the Regents are hardly unexpected. From the beginning, an army of educators and advocates for immigrants warned Mills and other state officials that they were brewing a disaster.

In late 1996, a roundtable convened by the Education Department recommended that the state not use the Regents for students still learning English. Instead, it urged the state to develop “alternative testing procedures to ensure that the new Regents exams for high school graduation do not systematically deny [ELL] students a high school diploma.”

Over the next four years, prominent advisors including statisticians, anthropologists, psychologists, linguists, curriculum experts and professors of education–would repeat the request for a safety net for these students. In August 1997, a technical advisory group to the Education Department predicted high failure rates among ELLs. And last November, a 69-member English Language Learners advisory committee urged the state to slow down its imposition of the graduation requirement. Immigrant students, they reported, lack “the frequency and duration of English language arts instruction…necessary to pass the Regents Comprehensive Test in English.” This committee, too, predicted high failure rates for these students.

One idea popular among advisory committee members would have retained the current minimum competency exams until a special Regents exam designed for English language learners was in place. An Assembly bill that would have provided that alternative exam died in committee.

But state officials have made it very clear that there are to be no exceptions to the new requirement. Minutes from a technical advisory group meeting in the spring of 1999 reveal that the Education Department “advised that it is important for credibility and public acceptance that the standards, once set, not be changed without good reasons that can be defended in public.”

The only concessions the Regents made were small: When taking the state exams, English language learners could have more time, quiet rooms, and the opportunity to have the oral part of the test read three times instead of two. “I find it distressing that…the Commissioner has chosen to ignore the expert advice of those to whom he has turned,” commented Edward DeAvila, a psychologist and consultant to states and the federal government.

Some of the Regents themselves acknowledge that the state’s motives are not purely pedagogical. “The fear is that we will be criticized–mostly by fairly conservative groups,” says Oquendo. “And nobody wants to be accused of watering down the tests, of going against the tide.”

To prevent that tide from further deluging students, the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund filed suit in federal court this July, charging New York’s failure to provide adequate instruction to ELLs for the English Language Arts Regents amounts to discrimination under the federal Civil Rights Act.

Alleging that the Education Department knew the hazards to students with limited English skills, the suit maintains that state officials “continued to press ahead with their agenda, placing the educational lives and rights of ELLs at risk.” The suit is brought on behalf of organizations, including the Immigration Coalition and Alianza Dominicana, that provide social services to immigrants. They fear a massive increase in demand for their services, everything from counseling to job training, if the Regents requirement leads to a swell of dropouts. “They’ve been doing work that takes the pressure off of schools,” says Sandra Del Valle, an attorney for PRLDEF. “It’s terribly unfair.”

The lawsuit points to the extraordinary consequences associated with not having a high school diploma. The most obvious hazard is significantly lower pay and much higher unemployment–men without diplomas are twice as likely as those with them to be unemployed, and women are three times as likely. PRLDEF’s objective is to see students tested on material geared to the length of time they have studied English in school. “Otherwise, they are asked to take tests on things they have never learned,” points out Del Valle. “That’s an invalid test.”

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International High is now appealing the ruling that forced its students to take the Regents. The possibility that the school may lose its case has changed the routine here: Teachers are now preparing students to take the Regents in English and math, which will both be required for graduation citywide this year.

Sonia Oliva, a senior from Honduras, is now preparing for her graduation portfolio. She has just about decided on two books for her literary essay. Reaching into her bag, she pulls out an English-Spanish dictionary. “I need this to go along with him,” she says, and points to Robert Olen Butler, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, about Vietnamese Americans. She will compare it with Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers, about Jewish immigrants.

Sonia smiles easily, speaks energetically, serves on the student council, plays Friday soccer on an otherwise all-male team and works at McDonald’s on the weekends. Her father says she doesn’t have to work, but the extra money might come in handy if she gets accepted to SUNY-Binghamton or to Stony Brook.

In the meantime, a new focus on the upcoming Regents exams has transformed her classes. “Everything is devoted to the Regents,” she says. She would rather, she says, be reading and thinking about books. “There’s no point in memorizing stuff I will forget the next day,” says Sonia. “This work means a lot to our grades–our way to college. It’s not easy. And they want us to do something like that in six hours and the next day just to forget all about it.”

It’s that kind of passion for thinking and learning that Nadelstern says he can’t bear to discourage. “I have no doubt if we keep rolling in Regents we will be forced to conform to the instructional model of large, failed high schools,” says Nadelstern. The advent of the test makes him worry that the program he has built, with the help of $60 million from the city and state over the past 15 years, will be wasted. He worries about sending students into the world without Rakhi’s ambition, or Sonia’s passion.

He is also angry for immigrant students all over the city who, he believes, aren’t learning the skills they’ll need for the obstacles that await. He would rather have successful, confident students who know what they are capable of, than what he calls “the illusion of accountability.”

Nadelstern takes some comfort from a letter of support Thomas Sobol wrote him last spring, when the state came down on his school, advocating the continued use of portfolios. “State officials,” said Sobol, “have no monopoly on wisdom concerning the best way to teach and evaluate students.”

Phyllis Vine is a historian and freelance journalist.