What should it take to graduate high school in New York?
As the state’s Board of Regents reconsiders the requirements to earn a diploma in New York, it kicked off the city’s participation in the two-year process with a meeting Wednesday at Brooklyn’s Fort Hamilton High School. It was the first of 11 such events scheduled in the five boroughs.
Officials plan to collect feedback from these discussions and send it to a commission that will eventually come up with ideas for changes to diploma requirements. (The commission has not yet been formed.)
State officials have stressed that they’re looking at much more than making changes to the Regents exams, or high school exit tests, and will dig into what it means to be ready for college or a career after high school.
Still, the fate of the Regents came up repeatedly during the 90 minutes that teachers, education advocates, parents, and students brainstormed. Many of those in attendance argued that test preparation takes up too much classroom time.
“We need the Regents exam to basically be eliminated,” Caitlyn Pace, a special education teacher at Bay Ridge’s High School of Telecommunication Arts and Technology, said to loud applause at the Brooklyn meeting.
Pace described feeling “chained” to the tests, keeping her from teaching students what they need “to be successful in the 21st century.”
Another Brooklyn high school teacher, who asked to remain anonymous, said she recently spent 40 uninterrupted minutes lecturing her students to prepare for exams instead of doing an “inquiry-based or engaging” classroom activity.
“That is literally everything I have been taught not to do,” the teacher said.
These were the key topics discussed Wednesday:
The Future of the Regents Exams
Students are required to take five Regents exams, in English, social studies, math, and science, to graduate. In recent years, the Board of Regents has moved to ease these requirements by allowing students to substitute one of those tests for one in an alternate subject area, such as arts or career and technical education.
But a relatively small number of students take advantage of this option — about 7% of New York City students who graduated last year took an alternate pathway to fulfill their Regents requirements.
Many educators and parents voiced support for removing the Regents exams as a diploma requirement, some noting that New York was among 11 states that still required high school exit exams.
Teachers shared stories about being unable to focus on “engaging” lessons because they had to make sure students were ready for the exit exams.
But some at the meeting pushed back on eliminating the exams. They said the tests helped ensure teachers were held accountable, and it was a measurable way to show how students have progressed.
One teacher noted that the city’s consortium schools allow students to graduate based on their work and projects, but must still pass the English Regents exam. (Schools wanting this approach must get state approval, and there are 36 such schools in New York City.)
Several educators talked about giving students different ways to earn a diploma based on their specific interests, such as a particular vocational program, and assessing them based on that interest. Attendees worried there aren’t enough career and technical education programs available for students.
“More value should be placed into technical programs,” said Nancy Cummings, a middle school teacher in Brooklyn.
Focusing on the ‘Whole Child’
Some parents and teachers talked about giving schools more resources that offer extra support for students and families, such as more social workers. That, they said, would help address some of the underlying issues that can make it tough for students to attend school consistently and be less likely to fall behind.
Several parents and educators praised the city’s community schools model, which provides wraparound services, such as more counselors and on-site eye exams, at 267 high-needs schools. They wondered about the effects of installing a single washing machine or having a pantry at more needy schools in an effort to get children to attend more consistently.
“These are issues [that] have to be able to be addressed,” one parent, who identified herself as a local PTA president, later told the whole room.
A few teachers said they were charged with figuring out the social-emotional needs of students who have experienced trauma or are dealing with massive change, such as those who are newly arrived immigrants in the United States.
A recent study of community schools showed an improvement in graduation rate, as well as attendance, math scores, and the rate at which students move up a grade. The researchers did not, however, find improvements in middle or elementary school reading scores.
Preparing Students to Solve ‘Real Problems’
Several people argued that students needed more skills to help prepare them for the workplace and civic life, like understanding the importance of voting, or learning how to approach a job interview.
Maria Lima, a junior at Sunset Park High School, said she wanted to see teachers encourage empathy among students and teach them how to fix problems, such as racism and inequality.
“It’s not just about getting a diploma, not about just solving X and Y,” Lima said. “It’s about solving real problems, and allowing others to be able to solve problems if you help them.”
There is an increasing appetite in New York and around the nation for better civic readiness curriculums, as the country’s political polarization grows and voter participation remains low.
A civic readiness task force recently suggested a slew of recommendations for New York to adopt, such as pursuing an advocacy project as an alternative pathway to graduation.
But proponents of that plan have said it’s hard to implement without enough funding to support districts with rolling out a new curriculum.
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