New York education officials are expected to decide soon whether a small number of schools can substitute individually tailored projects for the exams the state has recently begun to require for graduation.
The future of those schools hangs in the balance, say the advocates who are fighting the regents’ exam requirement. But proponents of the requirement argue that the tests are a good and necessary tool for every public school, including ones that have taken an “alternative” approach to education.
“The problem is they are all public schools,’' said Diane Ravitch, a prominent New York University scholar and a former assistant U.S. secretary of education. “They all have to be able to demonstrate public accountability.”
“We are saying that standards don’t mean standardization,” countered Ann Cook, a co-director of a New York City alternative school and a member of the 40-school New York Performance Standards Consortium.
The consortium and the panel it convened to help develop and oversee its assessment system, which includes well-regarded educators such as the author and Harvard University lecturer Theodore R. Sizer, made its case last month to a state education department panel on assessment.
Consortium members stressed that their system offers not only worthwhile tasks and meaningful grades, but also links to professional development.
At the end of the day, however, the state panel’s recommendations fell far short of the consortium’s request. The panel recommended that students at the alternative schools be required to take the regents exams in English and mathematics, although those who fail to pass could still graduate if they made the grade on the alternative consortium assessments. Moreover, the partial exemption—which should apply only to 20 schools that were originally granted a testing waiver in 1995—would run only through 2001.
Under a 1995 law, this year’s seniors must pass the regents English exam to graduate. Next year’s seniors will be required to pass the exams in both English and math, with tests in social studies and science phased in over the following two years.
It is now up to state Commissioner of Education Richard C. Mills to decide what to do with the panel’s recommendations. He is widely expected to announce a decision soon because the first of the two remaining administrations of the regents exam in English for this school year is scheduled for the last week of January.
Administrators of the alternative schools say more is at stake than the time and effort needed for the exams—though that is considerable. The English exam takes place over two days, and some administrators say they would feel obligated to specifically prepare students for it.
Much at Stake
But more harmful, according to the administrators, is the impact on the culture and values of the schools, many of which have been successful in educating students who don’t thrive in more traditional settings.
“We work for four years getting kids to write, think, revise, reflect, discuss ... in a prolonged dialogue with classmates and instructors, and the state is putting a higher value on an immediate-response, single- instrument, sudden-death approach,’' said Stephen J. Stoll, a co-director of the 770-student Beacon School in New York City. “The work we spend four years doing is nullified.”
Ms. Cook, the consortium member, says she fears that schools such as hers may have a hard time recruiting students if the regents exams are required, either because the schools will no longer offer a clear alternative or because students will be turned off by two sets of graduation requirements.
“We have found ways to make these kids successful,’' said Ms. Cook, who heads the 130-student Urban Academy Laboratory High School in Manhattan, a last-chance school for at-risk students that sends almost all its graduates on to college. “How come the state wants to pull the rug out from under us?”
But state officials downplay possible problems, especially with the English test.
“I don’t see a conflict between the two,” said Roseanne DeFabio, the assistant state commissioner of curriculum, instruction, and assessment. “People who do portfolios [of their work in English] would be well-prepared.”
Ms. Ravitch of NYU agrees. “The heart of the question is the nature of the test, and from what I’ve seen it is a very skill-oriented test and is generic” in terms of curriculum, she said.
Ms. Ravitch recommended that the alternative schools accept the math and English exams while working to develop high-quality assessments for social studies and science.
A version of this article appeared in the January 12, 2000 edition of Education Week as Mills To Decide Soon On N.Y. Testing Waivers