NYS Ed Dept Is Poised to Phase Out Regents Exams Next Year

The writer, who taught in a city public high school for ten years and now is working on her doctorate, says the move to abolish the requirement that made passing regents exams a prerequisite for graduating a public NYC high school is long overdue change.

| 21 Jun 2024 | 02:24

I cheered when the news broke [on the morning of June 17] that the New York State Education Department plans to make Regents exams optional—meaning that passing these tests, which have been administered for more than 150 years, will no longer be required to earn a standard high school diploma.

The Board of Regents still has to vote in November, and students will have to take these exams for at least another year. But the planned change can’t come soon enough, especially for our growing number of English Language Learners, or ELLs.

Just last month, Chalkbeat published a story about immigrant students who were pressured by their principals to transfer schools because they had failed the English Regents and likely would not graduate on time. If only these students had been evaluated through project-based work, they would not have posed a risk to the school’s graduation rates.

We already have a blueprint for evaluation in the post-Regents era — the kind of project-based learning that replaced state assessments during the pandemic. At the height of COVID, when graduation requirements were changed to make it easier to earn a diploma without passing the English Regents, my students of immigrant origin excelled.

Instead of taking year-end exams in our classroom, my 12th grade English Language Arts students were explaining their art projects to their teachers and friends. Some students acted out skits, others blasted soundtracks, and others still scanned QR codes tied to social media presentations.

Their term-long projects tackled a common theme, “Journey to Love,” and they compared texts in different languages and media. It was noisy, messy, and real.

At the International High School at Prospect Heights, where I taught for 10 years until June 2023, pandemic-era changes to Regents requirements allowed us to fully teach through project-based learning and show off our success with outcomes like this art exhibit.

It was more than a welcome respite from the drudgery of test prep; it was a lesson that we need to continue.

Since this topic is part of a roiling national debate about test-optional college admissions— with some elite universities bringing back the SAT requirements after going test-optional during the pandemic — I want to show an alternative perspective to reinforce New York’s recent news.

For marginalized students, especially recent immigrants doing the double duty of learning content and a new language, a standardized approach can be exclusive and an inaccurate assessment.

Many of my students had been in the United States for fewer than three years. Some had interruptions in their formal education or were rejected by other New York City schools unequipped to support their linguistic needs. With project-based learning, they gained confidence from learning the content in-depth without the pressure — and negative reinforcement — of multiple-choice assessments in English.

My students want to care about what they are learning, and I had to tell them that the Regents Exam didn’t care if they cared. Instead of curiosity, the Regents wanted correctness. Instead of depth, the Regents wanted breadth. Instead of teachers, the Regents wanted proctors.

As an educator and doctoral student in Urban Education at the City University of New York Graduate Center, I urge admissions departments to view the debate through a less-common lens: language equity. Too often, students whose first language is not English are viewed as deficient, contributing to policies and practices that segregate them into classes with rote and watered-down curriculum, or subject them to standardized assessments that punish them for their multilingualism.

During the lockdown and the two school years that followed, coinciding with the suspension of Regents requirements, more ELLs graduated from high school than before. The statewide graduation rate in 2020-2021 for ELLs was 60 percent, compared to 46 percent the year prior, an Education Trust-New York report shows.

And according to our guidance counselor, more of our students were admitted to four-year City University of New York schools than before. That was also the year that CUNY suspended its SAT requirements. It was not a coincidence.

During the pandemic, most colleges evaluated students on their GPA, their personal statements, and letters of recommendation. For many of my students, that was life-changing. By going on to four-year degree programs, they not only experienced a more competitive classroom environment, they also likely increased their earning capabilities post-graduation.

A student of mine I’ll call Lorena was a prime beneficiary of the pandemic exception to Regents exams. When I met her, she was an 11th grader who had moved from the Dominican Republic to the United States two years prior.

Her spoken English was still developing. Her writing showed promise with voice and insight, but it was obvious that Lorena relied heavily on Google Translate to make her writing comprehensible in English.

Her classmates and I appreciated her because she took her learning seriously and also willingly participated in her home language of Spanish. She collaborated with her peers and often took risks. During her portfolio presentations, she was prepared with crisp slides, and, having had the time to practice her fluency, she responded to questions insightfully.

Lorena may sound like an ideal student, but the Regents’ monolingual bias did not recognize that in her junior year of high school. It told her multiple times that she did not have enough English proficiency to be a successful student, and she got more frustrated with each result.

Yet, with the Regents waiver, Lorena was admitted to John Jay College in 2021. She is completing her degree in Criminal Justice and is relying on the experiences and skills she developed her senior year through project-based learning. She is also mentoring high school and college students now.

I often think back to her “Journey to Love” project. Lorena wrote a literary analysis essay and a bilingual poem about “el patriarcardo,” expressing her frustrations about balancing multiple responsibilities because of her gender and sharing about the sexual harassment she faced daily on the streets.

Lorena took an authentic path, one freed from an impersonal testing system that does not consider multilingual abilities or the worth of communicating through creativity.

It is time to make this permanent for all students in New York State.

Sunisa Nuonsy is an educator in Brooklyn and a doctoral student at the CUNY Graduate Center and a project researcher for the CUNY Initiative on Immigration and Education.

This story was originally published on June 17 by Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools. Sign up for their newsletters at ckbe.at/newsletters.