Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Regents

What, exactly are we doing?

I keep asking myself this question at work lately. The state of New York just wrapped up Regents Examinations week. The Regents are state designed exams administered every January, June and August. In New York, a student cannot graduate high school unless he/she passes five specific Regents (I believe these are English, Integrated Algebra, U.S. History, Global History and Science) with a minimum score of 65. Before I take a massive dump on this system: Kudos to New York for making Global History and not just U.S. History a requirement to graduate. I still haven't come to terms with the fact that American students today are learning geography based on what country the U.S. decides to invade next. Pathetic...

I would argue that from a teacher's perspective, the whole Regents system is complete bullshit. Yet, believe it or not, there are plenty of "higher ups" in the system who praise the Regents as a great, objective measure of performance and future success. Some might call the exams a necessary evil - something that needs to be done for a purpose different than simply gauging how "smart" kids are. Then there are those who call for the complete destruction of the Regents system.

After Teach for America (my view is biased, I realize this) training, I find myself leaning more and more towards the "necessary evil" category (I was actually against standardized exams altogether before), primarily to analyze trends in student performance over time. I wouldn't, however, make the exams a requirement to graduate; not if the minimum passing grade is a mere 65. And as if our standards weren't low enough already, students only need a 55 if they want to settle for what in New York state is called, a "local" diploma. Shit man, why even set a bar if it's low enough for a fucking toddler to crawl over?

Forget standards. Simply consider the message. What are schools communicating to students when we return graded Regents exams? Assume John Doe, a below-average student in a NYC public high school barely passes his Integrated Algebra Regents exam. Here's my take on what message the exam score communicates:

"Congratulations John Doe, you passed the Integrated Algebra Regents Examination with a whopping score of 65. Out of a possible 39 questions (30 multiple choice and 9 short-answer), you answered 15 questions correctly, and left the entire short-answer portion blank! But no sweat, this gives you a raw score of 30, which translates to a scaled score of 65 (somehow). John, you half-assed your way through class. You have a shitty attendance record. You still don't know how to engage in a conversation without dropping the "F" bomb four-to-five times in a sentence. But you know what? You passed the Algebra Regents Examination. John, you're ready for the real world. Yes, you, John. Forget what your teachers say about work ethic, discipline and practice. This is your time. Grab a Bud Light." 

Heh, so I may be exaggerating (a bit), but this is purposeful. John Doe realizes there's a discrepancy between what teachers demand in school and what the state (a.k.a. "the real world") considers acceptable. In his naïveté (yes, I know that's a pretentious, douchey word to use), John goes home and smokes himself stupid to celebrate. "Why bother actually learning the material, when I don't have to?" Any mediocre student could get away with barely knowing any content and pass the exams in 2-3 tries. By now, you can see where I'm going with this: We're fucked.

I acknowledge I haven't presented a complete and fair argument here (damn you, grad school), but I'm sure we can all agree on one thing: It's clear more and more schools are looking to standardized tests to summarize the worth (and potential) of any given student. It's all about the numbers...
Newsflash: Education isn't finance. 

Why then, are we using the principles of finance and applying them to education? I really don't think pegging a number on a student tells you much besides the fact that they were successful on a test which was created to promote what Alfie Kohn calls, superficial thinking. Yet, the Regents are being used as a hurdle to graduate in NY state. Wow. We're liars. We tell kiddos that if they perform well on these tests, they're ready to go out there and survive. I acknowledge some readers might not have had the same childhood experience as most underprivileged New York City youth do, so do your best to empathize. Trust me, it's a scary situation... I wish I had taken the blue pill.

By now, you'd think with all the flak standardized tests are getting, New York would at least remove passing the Regents as a minimum hurdle required to graduate. Not a chance. In fact, more states are pushing for tests like these in an effort to bring what the Department of Education calls "higher standards" and "greater accountability." These sound like phrases an investment bank would use to market itself to dumbfucks who rely on CNBC for stock tips...Sad.

Why even bother spending the greater part of a year teaching content when schools could spend a month or two teaching students how to take standardized tests? In fact, screw schools. Principals can just fire teachers and hire The Princeton Review or Kaplan tutors to train students on how to pass (keyword: pass) Regents exams and "crack" the SAT.

A little extreme, I know, but that is pretty much what's happening in the long run. I'm seeing it now and honestly, I'm feeling overwhelmed and helpless. Poor fools with no motivation, work ethic or dreams show up, somehow pass their Regents and get excited about graduating. I really don't think we should let them until they grow up and get their priorities straight. But how long can we keep them? As one of my students said earlier this morning, "High school ain't a place for a grown ass man."


Mr. O said...

Something tells me you are not a Math teacher. :)

1. In your example, John Doe is a below-average student, and you are mad that we are sending him an inconsistent message by letting him graduate. Really? You'd rather not let him graduate to "keep a consistent message"? Pop-quiz: how many below-average students do you have in your school?

2. You are assuming that letting Joe graduate is an endorsement of his studying habits. It's not, just as passing your class with "C-" is not an endorsement. He is unlikely to be proud, assuming that his parents and teachers instilled any sense of pride and self-worth in him.

3. We all know that these scores are really not about students, right? They are about you. One kid's score does not really reflect on you. An average score of your class does. A trend of the scores of this class through the years most certainly does.

No one likes to be judged, and that last point is why a lot of teachers hate standardized tests. Don't. If you are a capable, caring teacher - which, quite obviously, you are - these scores will work in your favor, much more so than seniority will.

Mr. and Miss When you are really a teacher, you don't have a last name. said...

Your thoughts and internal conflicts are more than valid. What you voice is one of the most profound inconsistencies in our current state of education.

It makes me think of the English as a Second Language students that I have watched over the years. They are hard working, perfectly capable and beyond. They are truly potential assets to our society, and yet they have all their credits, have passed all their classes, but lack the ticket to the next level of opportunities: a passing English Regents score. Have you seen one of these exams? Challenging is an understatement, and that's when you are considering students who speak English as their first language trying to pass it. I have seen students walk away with every credit, grade, lesson learned- everything but their diploma, because they could not score high enough on this test. I have seen students who are EXTREMELY intelligent walk this road. Students who came here having to learn everything in a language they barely understood, yet adopted, and became fluent in. And we let these students into our schools, we develop special programs for them (ESL)yet ignore the fact that their ultimate judgment day will have little correlation with how much they have learned in academia and how much of an authentic learner/intellectual they have become. It doesn't make sense. It's like, don't let them go into our school system at all, if you are going to mandate an exam that has a grand possibility to teach them the lesson that hard work can't and won't pay off.

I understand the philosophy behind standardized testing. I agree with the need to have benchmarks to make sure that students and humans in general are growing and rising before going on to the next level. I learned it on Super Mario Brothers, duh.
But when the methods used to assess our students are like mirrors in a fun-house, I can't support it. I can fight it, by teaching TO THE TEST because to that student the TEST is the only thing that will cripple them or set them free, but I can't do it without feeling a deep sadness inside, both because of what these students may be missing out on with such a focus at their age, or because often this is a battle that we fight and don't win.

Lastly, Does "Mr. O" stand for "Mr. Oh no, not another one..."

I would further derail his assumptions and sweeping generalizations, but it seems you have me beat.

Anonymous said...

I am young teacher in a low income area in Chicago, and I face a lot of the situations and struggles you do as well. While I agree that standardized tests are a fucked way to measure student learning, I vehemently believe that there needs to be something to keep teachers accountable. So many teachers in my district have given up, don't care, go through the motions, and frankly get away with murder because tenured teachers are untouchable. They really do need to remove tenure, and find some way to hold teachers accountable.

The tests they have now are not the right way to do it, I agree, but I am so tired of working my ass off as a young teacher and seeing older ones scoff at me because I'm actually trying; they see young teachers like us who give a shit as a threat, and they know they're untouchable, so they bully us. Just like the students, ironically.

I know it's happening everywhere, but these layoffs are insane, and unfortunately they affect the youngest, freshest, most motivated group of teachers there are. I know there are great tenured teachers who have been teaching for a long time; however, they are so few and far between that I can't help feeling bitter knowing they will have their jobs next year and I won't. They ought to develop a real way to measure student learning, and yes actually JUDGE the teachers based on it. I am dedicated, hardworking, and I believe in my students even when they give me no reason to; I know they learn a lot from me, and I pour soul into my job. I'm not afraid of the numbers; I want them! I just want them to be based off of some sufficient form of assessment.

Keep your chin up and don't let the system drag you down; you'll prove yourself through those scores, no matter how poor the tests are.