(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)
In a process likely to last years, the New York Board of Regents is considering changing high school graduation requirements, which may include revising or creating a substitute for the Regents exams. To graduate, most students must currently pass five Regents exams. But while the education policy-setting board recently announced its exploratory plans, another path to a New York high school diploma already exists: a set of performance-based tasks that test students on an array of skills meant to be more in line with college- and career-readiness than what typical standardized exams measure.
Roughly 38 schools with about 30,000 students in the New York Performance Standards Consortium abide by the Performance-Based Assessment Tasks as their graduation requirements, along with the English Regents exam.
The beginnings of the Consortium were formed in the early 1990s when the state education commissioner at the time agreed to grant a waiver to a group of schools that had been using performance assessments instead of the state’s standardized exams, according to the Consortium’s website. The official organization formed in 1998, and now about 30,000 students attend the 38 Consortium schools in New York City, Rochester, and Ithaca.
Rather than earning a score of 65 percent or better on the five Regents exams in order to graduate high school, students at Consortium schools complete written tasks and oral presentations called Performance-Based Assessment Tasks (PBAT) against a set of rubrics, and must also pass the English Regents exam.
The PBATs include an analytical essay on literature, a social studies research paper, an extended or original science experiment, and problem-solving at higher levels of math. Instead of learning a vast amount of material for the Regents exams, students at Consortium schools may choose to take a deep dive into one topic for their PBAT, such as writing a paper on “Why did the Civil Rights Movement happen when it did?” or conducting an experiment on “The Effect of Tank Volume on Goldfish Growth.” Students work on their projects for months, compared to a Regents exam that may be conducted over a day or two.
Students give a presentation on their work to a panel of three external evaluators, and teachers use a standardized rubric for grading. The rubric is aligned to state educational standards, and each year the Consortium conducts studies where teachers from every Consortium school compare their students’ work to align weak, medium, and high performances to ensure standardization.
Gareth Robinson, the principal of a Consortium school in Queens, said when he taught at a Regents-based school, he had to make sure to teach the facts that were going to be on the exam, which did not necessarily prepare students for the writing and critical thinking skills they need in college.
“When I taught U.S. history last, [my students] were really interested in slavery and how the Constitution was interpreted today,” Robinson said. “But we didn’t really have time to get into that because it was, ‘I need you guys to memorize these dates, these four facts, because you need to recognize them on the test.’”
Regents Rethinking Process Underway
The Board of Regents announced a plan in July to form a commission that will make recommendations about potential changes to the state’s graduation requirements. Earlier this month, that mission was fleshed out slightly more, giving the commission a two-year timeline. The commission is expected to be formed in February and have representatives from New York City, the state PTA, and teachers unions, among others.
As states like California, Arizona, and South Carolina have eliminated their high school exit exams, New York has made room for some alternative pathways to graduation, such as the PBAT, while also significantly tinkering with the Regents exams and passing requirements themselves. The majority of states do not require a state exam for students to earn a high school diploma. While some raise doubts about moving away from the standardized tests as what they call an “objective measure,” the PBAT Consortium has been slowly growing and may offer a model for the larger shift that could be afoot.
The state allows students to substitute the social studies exam for other tests in career and technical education, art, or math, also known as the “four plus one” option. Additionally, there is an appeals process that may allow a student to earn a Regents diploma with a score lower than the passing 65%.
At the July Board of Regents meeting, several of the regents expressed the need for the commission to examine the emphasis of state tests as the only measure of achievement, what learning looks like in the 21st Century, and how some students, including some who pass the tests, do not have the reading and writing skills necessary to succeed in higher education.
New York State Education Department officials told Gotham Gazette that the Board of Regents has only discussed the process to review diploma options in New York, and there has been no discussion on specific alternative diploma options at this point. Spokesperson Emily DeSantis said the Board of Regents wants to ensure “ample time is provided” for the commission to carry out its work, and “no decisions have been made at this point.”
“The Board of Regents and the State Education Department have made it a priority to allow students to demonstrate their proficiency to graduate in many ways,” DeSantis said. “As we have said, this is not about changing our graduation standards. It’s about providing different avenues — equally rigorous — for kids to demonstrate they are ready to graduate with a meaningful diploma.”
Michael Benedetto of the Bronx, who represents District 82 in the New York State Assembly and is the chair of the Assembly education committee, said he is “not afraid” of a step like changing or getting rid of the Regents exams, adding that other methods of evaluating students like testing language proficiency by having a discussion with a student, may be more accurate.
“I’m not afraid of exploring those options and looking at them,” Benedetto said.
State Senator John Liu of Queens, also a Democrat and the chair of the Senate’s New York City schools subcommittee, said he hopes the commission does a “thorough and exhaustive” job.
He said there is a perception that New York has a “gold standard” in terms of high school graduation requirements and the state should be regularly assessing and “revising if necessary” what it means to be the gold standard.
“There’s no perfect assessment system,” Liu said, “whether that be standardized written exams or subjective evaluations on a host of criteria. Every system has its weakness. It’s the right thing to do for the commission to be reviewing this.”
Ray Domanico, the director of education policy at the Manhattan Institute, a think tank, said after 20 years of the current Regents exam requirements, it’s time for the Regents to look into the policy. He said there needs to be a “more aggressive push” to certify and make paths for careers and technical jobs for students who do not go to college but need to earn a living wage.
Domanico said nationally less than 40% of students complete a bachelor’s degree by their late 20s and that the number is lower for those in New York City.
“We’ve had this policy in place for close to 20 years, now it took awhile for it to phase in, but it’s based on the notion that all students who graduate high school must be prepared for college readiness,” Domanico said. “Although we certainly want more students to be prepared for success in college, that remains a heavy lift.”
Performance-Based Assessment - A Model?
Meanwhile, according to a 2017 PBAT Consortium report, the Consortium schools have shown strong results: they had about a 20% higher percentage of students enrolling in college and higher college-readiness numbers than students from other New York City public schools. The report said Consortium schools have a higher percentage of Hispanic students, students living at the poverty level, and English Language Learners. The most recent data set available for Consortium schools was based on information from the 2014-2015 school year.
Regent Judith Johnson, who emphasized that her comments are her own and not the Board’s official policy, said performance-based assessments allow students to answer the question “what do you know?” as opposed to “do you know this?”
She said the “what do you know?” question needs to be factored into assessing student learning because it is more related to the skills students need to succeed in post-secondary education and in work settings.
“All students know something, and there needs to be a mechanism for students to demonstrate what they know,” Johnson said in an email to Gotham Gazette. “They may not know ‘this’ but many know a lot that is not included on their Regents exams, and gauging their learning by a single exam disadvantages students who are not skilled test-takers and/or whose knowledge doesn’t comport with the test-makers’ vision of what students ought to know. These are often smart, creative students who think in ways not valued by Regents exams.”
Ben Wides, a teacher at East Side Community High School, which is part of the Consortium, said the PBATs closely resemble papers and projects students will complete in college, which may lead to the better numbers. He said the process of revising and meeting with teachers creates a model for students to approach assignments in college.
“Students will have to take tests in college, they may have to take multiple choice history tests, etc., but to be a strong student in college, you need to be able to write a paper along the lines of what a PBAT is asking students to do,” Wides said. “The PBAT is a more authentic assessment of a student’s readiness to be successful in college than the Regents exam is.”
The report also showed that teacher retention rates were higher for Consortium schools, by 8 percent, and the Consortium’s four-year graduation rate was 80% compared to the larger Department of Education’s 71%. In 2018 the New York City graduation rate rose to 76 percent while the number of students the City University of New York deemed ready for college was 66%, according to state data.
Domanico said that though he has not looked recently, Consortium schools have generally produced good results. He said while there is a place for alternative assessment systems in a school system as large as New York City, the difficult questions are of scale: will the approach work for all students and are all teachers prepared to be successful in the “nontraditional” environment.
“At a minimum I would like to see those schools continue doing what they’re doing,” Domanico said. “If the evidence is still very positive for them as it has been in the past, one might think of expanding those schools, but I don’t know I’d be ready to quickly jump to that as the model for the entire city or state.”
Ann Cook, the executive director and co-founder of the Consortium, told Chalkbeat in 2018 that the Consortium’s assessment system would be difficult to spread across the state. There is also a limited number of waivers the state will grant.
“Could every kid in the state be doing this? I’d probably say no,” Cook said to Chalkbeat. “And the reason is you have to have a faculty that is interested and wants to do it. They should want to opt into this because it takes a lot of work in the school.”
Wides said that he does think the Consortium could be a model for other schools, though it is not something that could be implemented for all schools in the state because of the professional development required for teachers and the “reorientation of the school culture.”
Most Consortium schools are in New York City, and the Board of Regents and the State Education Department has extended the waiver allowing Consortium school graduates to earn a Regents diploma five times since the 1990s. There are 16 Consortium schools in Manhattan, 9 in Brooklyn and 4 in Queens. Some member schools include Beacon High School in Manhattan and Bronx Lab School.
“People have to ask what it is we want kids to be able to do when they leave high school,” Cook told Straus Media in 2015. “We’re preparing kids to survive and get the most out of the college experience.”
Robinson said when the Institute for Health Professions at Cambria Heights, the high school he co-founded and serves as principal, was forming, an adviser suggested that the school was functioning more as a Consortium school rather than a traditional school.
Robinson said he had not heard of the Consortium before, but contacted Cook about becoming a member school. At the start of the process, the Institute first became a pilot Consortium school, where students still needed to pass all the Regents exams to graduate but teachers and administrators started to prepare the work for the PBATs. Robinson said there first had to be a referendum where 90% of the teachers and the principal agreed to become a pilot school.
Later, the Consortium received from the Board of Regents and State Education Department an expansion on the number of waivers it was allowed to grant to schools looking to become full members. Robinson said two schools that were supposed to receive the waivers dropped out because their referenda failed, and the Institute was able to secure a waiver to administer the PBATs.
“So starting our second year we became a new member of the New York Performance Standards Consortium, and that was a big learning process, or I should say it was a big unlearning process,” Robinson said, “because all of the teachers, everyone, had all been trained to teach in Regents schools, had taught in Regents schools, had students taught in Regents schools.”
Robinson said teaching PBAT is a lot of work for teachers who have to design their curricula “from the ground-up” and have to know their content “really well.” He said while curricula is still aligned to state standards, it can be more individually designed to fit students’ struggles and strengths. Because students spend months working on their assessments, they have more opportunities to check in with teachers and get help if needed.
He added that the process of scheduling outside evaluators to conduct the panel portion of the assessments is a lot of added work on schools.
“A lot of schools aren’t necessarily going to want to do the work because it sounds kind of simple you know the kids do this project and write this paper and do this presentation, but it’s really hard to schedule,” Robinson said. “My school this year we had about 120 juniors and so when all of them have to present one PBAT, we have to get 120 kids scheduled at the same time of Regents week to do these presentations.”
Wides said, though, that teaching PBAT makes students more excited about education as they are learning to develop questions and then answer them using evidence and analysis rather than answering multiple choice questions or writing short essays on the Regents exams.
“If you go to a Regents school, and I don’t want to pigeon hole all Regents schools, but the academic goal is 80% of students score X on the Regents. That is not a learning goal,” Wides said. “The learning goal is I want students to be intellectually curious.”
Wides added that one challenge with teaching PBAT is choosing “depth over breadth.” He said Consortium schools may cover less content than Regents-based schools in order to devote time for students to develop the reading and writing skills for the PBAT, aiming to serve them better in the long-run.
Domanico also said that for some parents it’s difficult to make the change to a Consortium school because they “might not look like the schools they have come up through themselves.”
Parents who are familiar with progressive education, Robinson said, have no questions about the work done in Consortium schools. He said once they explain how the school works to other parents, “they get it.” Robinson added that when the school announced it was becoming a Consortium school, some students did transfer because their parents felt being at a Regents school would look better to colleges.
“Now we have our third graduating class and I can safely say in three years, 100% of our kids have been accepted to at least one school,” Robinson said. “I have for the first time in my teaching career, one of my students is getting into my alma mater, Tufts [University].”
The New York City Department of Education did not respond to a request for comment on how many schools can receive a waiver for Regents exams. Cook also did not respond to interview requests.
On Tuesday, September 24, the New York City Council education committee will hold an oversight hearing entitled "Breaking Testing Culture: Evaluating multiple pathways to determine student mastery." It's unclear how the PBAT schools will be featured, but the hearing promises to be fairly exhaustive, with, as the title suggests, heavy skepticism toward standardized testing. It comes, in the state's largest city and school district, as the statewide Regents exam review is not yet officially started. Council Member Mark Treyger of Brooklyn, a former teacher, chairs the education committee and will lead the hearing. Mentioning the hearing and inviting interested parties to testify, Treyger tweeted on Saturday that "We must explore & hear about alternative, research-based measures to gauge student proficiency & mastery of content. Relying solely on standardized exams shortchanges students & learning."
Assembly Member Benedetto said that while there aren’t that many Consortium schools in New York, there are enough to get a sense of how they are performing.
“It’s all speculation, but I would speculate that the future might look bright for these schools,” Benedetto said. “As far as I can determine they seem to be performing quite adequately. If that’s the case it can only bode well for other schools in the state to possibly follow their model and the way they go about things.”
Ben Max contributed to this story.