Op-ed: NY’s Graduation Exams are Failing Our Students

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Jimmy Thomas

This month we celebrate commencement for thousands of high school students throughout New York state. Many will attend college, learn a new trade or enter the workforce. Graduating high school in New York is no small feat. Besides required courses, students must pass five standardized exit exams, known as the Regents. Only one other state requires more exams, and half of all states require none. In 2014, this led to 24 percent of the 2010 high school cohort not graduating on time. Just 10 states had worse outcomes. So, who is left behind? Of course, they are students traditionally branded as difficult-to-teach: low-income students, students of color, students with disabilities and English language learners.

Exit exams are significant barriers to these students for many reasons. Some students with learning disabilities have learning styles poorly suited to the one-size-fits-all approach of standardized tests. Low-income students and students of color must balance test preparation and anxiety with the enduring struggles of their challenging lives. For English language learners, standardized exams are often not valid or reliable indicators of their knowledge and potential.

If they miss the chance to graduate, the situation facing these students grows dire. Many will persist into their 5th or 6th year or age-out of school, some having passed their coursework but held back by a single exam. Others will leave the state looking to earn a diploma from one of many states with more flexible graduation requirements. Still others will drop out, costing the state billions in lost tax revenue and social expenditures. There is also a toll on communities, particularly in segregated urban areas where needs are highest but school quality and resources are lowest. Individuals without a diploma are more likely to be unemployed and interact with law enforcement and the criminal justice system. The consequences can be seen in Ferguson, Baltimore and the recent uptick in shootings in New York City.

The struggles of our education system are absolute. Poor access to first-rate instruction and poor postsecondary outcomes continue to plague our students. We cannot expect students to graduate without the tools to prosper.

However, there is no research to support the notion that high-stakes, standardized exams can resolve these issues. Furthermore, countless studies confirm that along with school-related factors, family background and neighborhood characteristics influence exam performance.

How does New York ensure all students have equal opportunity at a meaningful high-school diploma? First, we must reduce reliance on high-stakes exams to maintain standards. Standards should be upheld daily in the classroom, where teachers develop expectations of what students can achieve. Assessments should be used to inform those expectations and identify areas for improvement, not penalize students. Second, we must offer varying assessment options for students. Not all students can demonstrate proficiency through standardized exams. For some students, project-based or performance-based tasks might be more suitable. Third, we must expand Career and Technical Education programs. These programs provide vital alternatives for at-risk students by engaging them in practical problem-solving activities that build critical thinking and marketable skills.

Furthermore, we must guarantee adequate means to empower students to access and make the most of these opportunities. New York must no longer allow its most vulnerable students to shoulder the burden of a state accountability system that disregards the socioeconomic realities that defy these students well before they enter high school.

Addressing these issues directly will put New York at the forefront of true education reform, and the lives of our young people and our communities in the national spotlight for more hopeful reasons. As we celebrate our graduates, let us remember the students New York leaves behind and reconsider the opportunities students have to access a diploma.

Christian Villenas, M.S., Ph.D. is a Senior Policy Analyst at Advocates for Children of New York.

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  • RIKKI

    WE NEED A WAR ON EBONICS! There is really only one way to end all this…its behavior and functional illiteracy that is the overwhelming problem..not race or politics.

    There was no white flight in schools, parents saw the next generation of kids on a jail track and not a college one, so they moved and guess what? so did blacks. If you apply for public assistance you must sit in class 15-20 hours a week and learn English and Math for your EBT card….your FB page must be in your own name…there was no Trayvon Martin FB page but there was a gangsta one, and you must respond in English not ghetto

    Let the prisoners decide how long they want to stay in jail…..cool idea…its up to you…..all you need to do is read and discuss the New York Times in front of a parole board and ask for a second chance…that could take 5 or 50 years their choice……the problem is NOT racial
    discrimination, but severe functional illiteracy and we need to break the chains.

    • Jean Schutt McTavish

      Literacy is important, there is no doubt. But wars don’t work. Students need a well rounded education which includes the ability to code switch and conduct themselves credibly and authentically in diverse circumstances. Think about the Indian schools where Native American youth were stripped of their cultural heritage. We have families and children in crises on reservations across the country. Not a good look for the old Red, White, and Blue. Cultural warfare isn’t good either. Compassion, empathy, and care on the part of all citizens would do a great deal to solve our country’s problems. I would be afraid of you if you were my children’s teacher because of your lack of respect. I’m not religious, my Facebook page is in my own name, I’m a NYC high school principal (same school for the past 14 years), and I fundamentally disagree with your analysis. High Stakes tests are dumbing down our country. Wake up!

      • RIKKI

        i disagree its called manning up or womaning up……we have allowed mostly blacks to be dumbed down to pass…..now they are saying common core is racist because so many blacks fail and fail miserably..

        when i went to school blacks were held to the same standard as everyone else……so what is the only real difference between a good school and a failing one Jean?

        the good school demands you speak English when you walk through the front, . that’s it…get blacks to speak English and lots of problems will work itself out….. no more wussie excuses (like code switching) please.

        • Jean Schutt McTavish

          I can code switch. If it is hard for you, we can work on that. The difference between a good school and a bad school can be “measured” by the success of its graduates post high school. The test scores mean nothing. There are a ton of social emotional, or behavioral skills that have to be taught as well and those don’t get tested. Maybe you were absent on those days. You’re welcome to come visit my school to see what a good one looks like. Wussies, manning up and womaning up always sounds like a lot of hot air. My students may not get great test scores, but they turn their lives around and go on to do amazing things. We don’t have metal detectors, we have had one fight this year, and we are one of the safest schools in the city and one of the healthiest schools in the country (Gold recognition from the Alliance for a Healthier Generation 2 years in a row). How do we do that? With ALTERNATIVE approaches, not standardization and rote memorization, that is how. My students, staff, and myself are not wusses and we “man” and “woman” up every day for the right reasons; becoming productive, successful adults who understand the importance of community.

          • RIKKI

            and that’s good…..but that doesn’t excuse people like trayvon and mike brown who were both severely functionally illiterate nor the tens of thousands who get out of jail with 6th grade reading skills only to commit more crime..

            at least i offer a 3 prong approach school, welfare and jail, to end the problem.

            now lets get to it jean…… you live in an all white area……and your views are screwed to white kids……

            The racial makeup of the village was 82.21% (20,518) White, 1.59% (398) Black or African American, 0.06% (16) Native American, 12.99% (3,242) Asian, 0.02% (4) Pacific Islander, 1.06% (265) from other races, and 2.06% (515) from two or more races. Hispanics or Latinos of any race were 5.27% (1,316) of the population.[8]

            what you are talking about will not work in the ghetto ….because they just don’t grasp the English language as well as you or i do…and that’s the first step to solving the discrepancy..

          • Jean Schutt McTavish

            I have worked with kids in NYC who live in poverty for 29 years. My school is exclusively African American and Latino and it is a transfer school….for kids who have not been successful in traditional high school settings. Yes. I live in Ridgewood, but my biological children are half “black.” I know more about what to do with “those” kids than you realize. Yes. It is my school with my “black” kids that is nationally recognized. Yes. It is my school that uses restorative justice practices, that has little to no violence . It is my school that doesn’t have metal detectors. Yes. There is another way. You just have to open your eyes and ears…look, listen, and learn.

          • RIKKI

            jean i am also against drug testing welfare recipients or forcing them to work a menial job…..cool because i think they will drop like flies if they have to a pass a reading and math test each month for their ebt card. and learn to speak English without swearing or using the N word……this is going to be really challenging for a lot of them..

      • RIKKI

        Jean…..it still all goes back to this: convicts are functionally illiterate going in and coming out of jail…so

        if black people committed crimes at the same rate as white people we would not have to
        build anymore jails and, as time progressed we would have to close hundreds of them….it could wind up laying off 100,000 cops…because they wouldn’t be needed.