After an $8 million budget shortfall, the New York State Board of Regents recently voted to eliminate January exams, effective in 2012. While this may come as little concern for high-achieving schools, the decision could result in serious repercussions at schools with large populations of low-performing or special needs students.
The removal of such a critical examination period comes under the assumption that the circumstances and realities surrounding all schools in New York are the same. This, unfortunately, is not the case. In some school districts, January exams may have been a superfluous expenditure because majority the students are successful on the June Regents alone. In other districts, especially those situated in low-income, urban areas, every exam period -- January, June and August -- matters.
The varied manner by which this change will impact schools speaks to the underlying disparities in America's education system. More than half a century after Brown vs. the Board of Education, many American schools are still segregated. The difference now is that segregation is accepted under the guise of socio-economic status. And so, structural changes that might be innocuous in one district are catastrophic in another.
In urban districts like New York City, the potential for catastrophe is exacerbated. When graduating eighth-graders are dispensed into various high schools throughout the city, some institutions receive droves of level three and four students while others are over-burdened with ones and twos. Tossing large groups of struggling learners into a single school does not help raise achievement. My own school, after taking in an entire freshman class of students who scored two or below on middle school math and ELA exams, has struggled with this all year. Regardless of how hard teachers and students work, combating these skill deficits is an arduous, uphill battle.
Currently, students must pass five Regents to graduate in New York with a Regents diploma. While this is a doable task, some students -- especially those who enter ninth grade below standard -- may need more than one crack at a single exam to break the required 65. It's not easy. Consider the skills required to pass a Global History Regents: Students must first wrestle with millenniums worth of challenging content, complex theoretical frameworks and unfamiliar names and places; then, they must write two comprehensive essays, one a detailed exposé on a theme, the other a document analysis. For students who enter high school below standard, simply writing an essay about something they know can be a challenge. In my school, failure to pass the Global Regents has long been a stubborn predicate for not graduating.
The January exam period is important because it offers students the opportunity to take these high-stakes tests after receiving a semester of direct instruction. Because attendance and enrollment for summer school is unreliable, depending only on June and August exams is not a responsible exit strategy, especially for students who are barely on the cusp of graduating or remaining on-track.
Reality, while tough to swallow, is near impossible to ignore. We may fancy ourselves a size 2, but if our hips and thighs are more appropriately suited to a 6, those jeans ain't zipping up. In the same way, while no one wishes for a disparity in student performance across our school system, the problem does exist. It is possible to acknowledge and work with this fact without becoming complacent or resigned to it.
There are viable solutions to this testing conundrum. If the Department of Education can no longer afford to adequately administer the Regents, then they should lessen the severity and weight those exams attribute to the success of teachers and students. They could also eliminate the practice of pushing along middle school students who are not yet ready for ninth grade. With a thrust for high schools to posit themselves as "college-ready" institutions, students who enter below standard find themselves in classes they simply may not have the skills for. Either way, until all schools are created equal, such drastic and sweeping policies will only aggravate the inconsistencies and inequities that already beleaguer our school system.