Schools without Regents exams cite success amid shifting tides

City high schools that don’t require students to take Regents exams beat city averages on most metrics, even though they serve high-need students at the same rate as other schools, according to a new report.

The report, released this week, was produced by a group of the schools, the New York Performance Standards Consortium. But it examines independent data about student performance and persistence in college to find that students in consortium schools graduate at higher rates and are more likely to attend and remain enrolled in college. And it comes as Department of Education officials are increasingly touting the consortium’s approach to assessment.

The graduation rates are especially high for students with disabilities and English language learners. Nearly 70 percent of ELLs in consortium schools graduate on time, according to the report, compared to about 40 percent across the city. And half of students with disabilities in the consortium schools graduate on time, compared with fewer than a quarter citywide.

“What’s in [the report] is dynamite,” said Michelle Fine, a professor of urban education at City University of New York’s Graduate Center.

Fine was speaking at a press conference hosted by the New York Civil Liberties Union on alternatives to high-stakes testing earlier this week to announce that more than 1,100 academics had signed a letter opposing states’ increasingly reliance on test scores.

At the press conference, Fine and Diane Ravitch, a vocal critic of testing and city education policy, said the consortium’s success is proof the rest of the country has moved in the wrong direction since the group was founded in 1997. They said that while the national trend has been to put more emphasis on standardized testing, the consortium has succeeded with less.

The consortium consists of 28 public high schools that require their students to complete portfolio reviews to graduate, rather than pass Regents exams. (Students must take the English Regents exam but no others.) Portfolio assessments require students to complete research papers, essays, and science experiments before defending their work orally in front of a panel of independent graders, who follow formal guidelines to assess the students.

“The consortium believes that learning is comprehensive, and assessments should be as well,” said Ann Cook, its executive director and the founding principal of one its member schools, Urban Academy.

Urban Academy and a handful of other schools in the consortium are screened and select students to attend. But most of the other schools do not, and overall, the schools serve black and Latino students, poor students, students with disabilities, and ELLs at rates that mirror the city average. According to the report, students enter the consortium schools with eighth-grade test scores a touch lower than the city average.

The consortium schools’ higher graduation rates could be explained away by the simple fact that their students encounter fewer state-imposed obstacles to graduation. Yet their students stay in college into their second year far more often than students across the state and country, according to the report.

Proponents of performance assessment say that’s because the tasks the students complete in consortium high schools are better preparation for college-level work than are assignments geared only to getting students to pass a Regents exam.

Performance assessment could soon find a place in more schools because of the Common Core, new learning standards that favor deeper dives into content areas and will bring new tests in several years, and because the state’s teacher evaluation law requires student performance to factor into teachers’ ratings. Performance assessments are seen as likely to provide at least some of the data to make those calculations.

The shifting tides have Department of Education officials publicly endorsing the consortium’s approach. “We’ve been supportive of the consortium and giving them resources to try to expand the number of schools that they’re working with because we’d like to see more schools included in that,” said Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky last week during a panel on college-readiness.

One school in the consortium, New Day Academy, closed this year because of poor performance. But at least one brand-new school, Harvest Collegiate High School, will be joining this fall.

Still, department officials warn that the city isn’t ready to switch to a performance-based assessment approach.

“In freeing up schools to have the ability to use those kinds of assessment, there’s a risk that it slips below the basic skills level that the Regents have,” Martin Kurzweil, the department’s accountability czar, said during a panel discussion Thursday. “So the supports have to be in place to ensure that our teachers know how to teach in a way that aligns to those kinds of assessments and they know how to create those kinds of assessments and use them effectively.”

Kurzweil added, “That’s our big task over the next few years. because pretty soon a lot of assessment in New York City and New York State and the rest of the country is going to look more like that than like the current Regents.”