A coalition of small high schools in New York state is challenging the notion that using standardized tests and curricula is the best way to prepare all students for college-level work.
The New York Performance Standards Consortium is a network of 40 schools that have agreed to use common performance assessments as a requirement for graduation, rather than the more widely required state Regents exams.
Students at each of the schools must complete four common tasks to graduate: a research paper, a science experiment, a mathematical analysis, and an essay comparing works of literature. Students must defend their work on those assignments before a graduation committee that includes outside evaluators, in addition to successfully completing all courses. Teachers at each school use the same criteria to judge the students’ work.
The schools have received a temporary waiver from all but one of the Regents exams that are normally required for graduation. Students must pass the Regents English test. Not until the class of 2013 must the schools’ students meet the requirement of passing five Regents subject tests, all with a score of at least 65 out of a possible 100. (“N.Y. ‘Portfolio Schools’ Get Regents Reprieve,” Aug. 10, 2005)
Meanwhile, the schools continue to make the case that their graduates are succeeding in college without having passed the exams.
Martha Foote, the director of research for the consortium, has been collecting the college transcripts of graduates from 28 of the small schools, most of which are in New York City, for four years. She now has data on close to 700 students.
In designing an assessment system that would gauge college readiness, Ms. Foote said, the schools decided “not only do you need content skills, but you need work-habit skills as well.”
“You need persistence; you need to be able to revise; you need to be able to work independently, but at the same time seek out those who can help you; you need time-management skills; you need research skills; you need to read and write analytically; you need to lay out evidence,” she said.
Of the students she has tracked so far, 77 percent are attending four-year colleges; 19 percent, two-year colleges; and 4 percent, vocational or technical programs. Their collective grade point average for up to three completed semesters of college work is 2.6 on a 4-point scale.
Of those in four-year colleges, 84 percent returned for the sophomore year, compared with 73 percent nationally, as did 59 percent of those in two-year colleges, compared with a national average of 56 percent.
Yet the schools in the study enroll a higher percentage of poor students than the New York City average. About 60 percent are eligible for free school lunch versus 54 percent of students in New York City high schools.
“What we have found, anecdotally, is that kids will say, ‘When we get to college we really know how to write, we know how to revise,’ ” said Ms. Foote, “and they find their classmates around them are unable to do that.”