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."