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.