It’s every student’s nightmare: walking into a classroom to take a test you had no inkling was coming your way. But for students at two high schools in Queens, it will be reality on June 16th and June 20th, when they’ll be forced to take the standardized Regents Comprehensive Test–with barely a month to prepare for the crucial state-wide exam. Failing the Regents means not graduating. For students of International High School and Middle College High School in Long Island City, that could prevent them from going to college.
“The Regents are making me nervous,” fretted Edwin Fernandez, a senior at International who has been already accepted to CUNY’s Baruch College. “I’m risking, if I don’t pass the test, that I don’t graduate.”
Fernandez’s predicament originated in 1995, when students of both schools won a five-year waiver from taking the standardized Regents from the state Education Department.
Former Education Commissioner Thomas Sobol granted the waiver on the condition that the schools would meet educational standards that “meet or exceed the standards reflected by Regents examinations.” The schools were allowed to measure those standards through graduation portfolios consisting of analytical and literary essays, science experiments and oral examinations, instead of the standardized Regents.
The waiver applied to all of the state’s alternative public high schools, now numbering 37. The schools, 31 of which are in the city, serve students with “education deficits.” International High School, for example, serves immigrant teens with low English proficiency. And their track record has been good; college admissions at International High runs at 90 percent according to school records, as opposed to 58 percent for graduates in the citywide public school system. While advocates have been fighting aggressively to keep the portfolio system, state officials are insisting on standardized tests. “The portfolio is a valid assessment, but it’s not a substitute for the Regents,” says Education Department Spokesman Tom Dunn.
The waiver still holds until next year for the other alternative schools. But when the charter school law was passed in 1998, the city Board of Education encouraged both International and Middle College to apply for charter school status. They got it last year and–unbeknownst to school administrators–simultaneously earned an automatic revocation of their Regents waiver.
Exactly one month ago, New York State Education Commissioner Richard Mills informed the principals of both schools that because they are charter schools, they would not be eligible for the exemption the alternative public schools still held. The schools’ Regents waiver was revoked, and the principals were ordered to prepare their students for the June tests. After trying unsuccessfully to meet with Mills, the schools took the state Education Department to court, insisting that their Regent-exempt status be upheld. But on June 2 Superior Court Judge Thomas B. Canfield threw out their request.
The Education Department’s sucker-punch sent both students and teachers into shock. Teachers immediately switched gears from the teaching-intensive portfolio preparation to crash-course mode. “Kids are picking up some tension from the staff,” said Eric Nadelstern, the principal of International High. “The mood is very tense.”