How will New York students take Regents exams? (Hint: It’s too soon to know)

The questions about this year’s Regents once again raise the conversation of the exam’s role in determining a student’s readiness for graduation.

The back of the head of a woman wearing a mortarboard with a tassel hanging off the right side.
State officials have yet to decide how remote students will take Regents exams, which are required for graduation. (Sengchoy Inthachack / EyeEm / Getty Images)

As the coronavirus pandemic forced schools to close their doors in the spring, state education officials joined the rest of the country in canceling standardized exams, including New York’s mandated high school exit tests, known as the Regents. 

Now, as buildings have reopened for some in-person learning, state officials are once again facing a big question: How do districts safely and fairly administer Regents exams?  

One thing is certain: State officials announced last month that no state assessment will be offered online. Beyond that, it remains unknown how schools will test the students who have chosen to stay home, or whether the state will try and get a waiver from the federal government, as it did in the spring, to cancel the tests.

More than half of New York City’s nearly 1 million students (excluding charters) had opted to learn from home full time as of Oct. 9, while the rest are attending a mix of in-person and virtual school to allow for social distancing.

That lack of clarity makes it tough for Matthew Cucco, a U.S. History teacher at Union Square Academy, to decide how much time he should devote to exam preparation or if he can allow students to pursue more independent research projects, as he did when exams were canceled in the spring. He is also worried that a high-stakes end-of-year exam will draw deep equity divides among his students, about 95% of whom are learning from home. 

“They’re sharing an iPad with their siblings; their school iPads have faulty internet; they have to cook for their families, so they’re missing my lessons for the day,” Cucco said, describing some of his students’ situations. 

The questions about this year’s Regents once again raise the conversation of the exam’s role in determining a student’s readiness for graduation — a discussion that the Board of Regents had started to peel away but paused when the pandemic hit. 

In New York, students must pass five Regents exams in order to graduate from high school. Exams are typically offered in January, June and August, and they are tentatively scheduled for those months in 2021, according to a memo the state sent to districts in August. 

Some argue that Regents exams make a New York high school diploma stand out. But studies have found that these exit exams don’t necessarily better prepare high school graduates and have even hurt low-income students of color. 

Advocates, who have long been pushing the state to decouple Regents exams from graduation requirements and allow performance-based assessments, are asking the state to immediately call off the tests, to help educators and students focus on social emotional needs and other academic skills without having the exams hanging over them. Others believe the tests are an important barometer for student learning. 

State officials say it’s too early to make such a decision. In a recent letter to districts, Board of Regents Vice Chancellor T. Andrew Brown said the state is weighing several different factors, including the federal government’s unwillingness to waive standardized tests this year and the flexibility schools may need to schedule tests. Both grades 3-8 state tests and Regents exams are included in accountability measures that New York must report to the federal education department.

Ashley Grant, a lawyer with Advocates for Children New York, believes the state should unlink Regents exams from graduation requirements — for which it does not need federal approval — and can do that without making the call now about cancellations. Her organization is part of the Coalition for Multiple Pathways calling for project-based assessments in lieu of the Regents, and has been pushing the state to figure out other ways to show students are ready to graduate. 

“During these challenging times, students and educators should be able to focus on maximizing remote or hybrid learning by prioritizing students’ social-emotional needs,” Grant wrote to the Board of Regents on Aug. 21, “and zeroing in on the key standards at each grade level that will prepare students for future success, rather than worrying about high-stakes tests.” 

State officials argue that it’s not that simple to scrap the tests, given federal requirements, and the circumstances are different from the spring. But Steven Katz, the department’s assistant commissioner for the Office of State Assessments, in a response to Grant’s letter, left a bit of wiggle room.

“If, as the school year progresses and the testing periods grow nearer, we find that these tests cannot be safely and fairly administered to students, NYSED will apply for federal waivers,” he wrote. 

Shannon Tahoe, who was the state’s interim education commissioner this spring, said at the time of the cancellation it was necessary because of “much uncertainty as to when regular in-school attendance and instruction will be able to resume throughout the State and/or whether students will be adequately prepared to take these assessments.”

The state was able to cancel all standardized tests — the Regents as well as the grades 3-8 math and English tests — because they had the blessing of the federal government. This year, however, the federal government has indicated that it will not grant testing waivers. 

Federal guidance, however, could change if a new president assumes office following the November election. In a presidential forum last year, Democratic candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden said he would end the use of standardized testing in schools. 

Danielle Filson, a spokesperson for New York City schools, said the district is awaiting guidance from the state “so that we can provide information to our schools and families.”

Ian Rosenblum, executive director of Education Trust-New York, supported the state’s decision to waive tests in the spring because of the uncertainty and severity of the global pandemic. But he supports keeping the tests this year, arguing that the state now has time to figure out a way to administer the exams safely or find the best way to measure student progress so that teachers and families can understand where students stand after a tumultuous spring of learning. It’s especially important for students from underserved communities, he believes.

Without the exams, Rosenblum wonders how the state would ensure “students have solid information about how they’re doing.” 

“How do we know whether schools are giving students the knowledge and the skills and the tools they need to succeed in college and careers when they graduate?” he said. “The Regents are of course only one measure of that — though an important one.”

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