by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Last Monday, the New York Times reported that an advisory group for New York’s Education Department, under pressure to fix slumping graduation rates at its public schools, would propose not improving the education of the students but making the Regents Examinations, which the state has required since 1876 for a high-school diploma, optional. Other options such as “capstone projects,” presentations, or “performance-based assessments” would also enable graduation.
The recommendation — which has a fair chance of becoming policy — is an insult to the intelligence of citizens, a betrayal of New York parents and students, and a depressing if implicit concession by the state that it is losing hope of educating a new generation of public-school children to the standards of their predecessors. It is framed in the Times as New York falling in line with the rest of the country, where high-school exit exams once prevailed but are now limited to New York, Massachusetts, and Florida. But it is an understatement to say that the proposed alternatives to the Regents Exam are less challenging and more malleable for teachers and administrators to game than a test in multiple-choice and essay-writing format measuring core knowledge across a broad spectrum of topics. These gauzier, more “holistic” approaches are meant to allow judgment calls to supersede accurate assessment, and the reason for that is that, over the past several decades, American schoolchildren have begun underperforming on almost all standardized assessments relative to earlier generations.
What offends the most about the proposal to make the Regents Exam optional is that it is understood by all that the children of the ambitious, upwardly mobile, or rich will continue to take standardized tests to distinguish themselves from their competitors for admission to top undergraduate schools. Rather, this is merely a shabby way for New York’s Education Department to help “clear the books” of students whose educational experiences have not prepared them for life.