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by John Tarleton
Alternative Schools Give "F" to Regents Tests
Lai Ara Reagans is a sophomore at Vanguard High School who wants to go to college and become an early childhood teacher. She recently finished a report on the expectations that women and men have for themselves in The Iliad and The Odyssey. Now, she is grappling with Shakespeare's Macbeth. "Sometimes when I read it, it just feels like words," she says. "But, when we get into the classroom and analyze it, I can feel like I'm right in the story."
Opportunities for students like Reagans to learn through inquiry may soon disappear as New York State continues to follow the national trend toward "high-stakes" standardized testing by implementing Regents exams at Vanguard and 27 other alternative public schools in New York City that previously had been exempted. Ninth grade students will be required to take a battery of tests from June 18-24. To graduate, they must eventually pass all five Regents exams.
Standards-based testing has proliferated around the country in the past 10 years. Teachers and principals now commonly receive performance bonuses based on their students' test scores. In California, students as young as seven years old are taking 10 days straight of multiple-choice testing. American students now take as many as 600 million standardized tests per year, according to the New York-based Students Against Testing (SAT). That number will increase as the Bush Administration's "No Child Left Behind" initiative takes effect. By the 2005-2006 school year, public school children in grades three through eight will be tested annually in math and English. Critics of the tests worry that schools are spending more and more time and scarce resources on teaching kids how to pass tests.
"It's the meat market approach to education. There's no opportunity for personal relationships, for creativity or for innovation," said Bill Wetzel of SAT. "We're basi-cally raising a generation of young people who know how to fill in other people's blanks."
Located at 67th Street and First Avenue, Vanguard High is a small high school of 440 mostly African-American and Latino students. It was founded 10 years ago as an experi-ment in innovative learning. Chemistry students investigate air pollution. Geometry students develop three-dimensional models of neighborhoods and calculate volume and sur-face weight. In English, students are writing literary analysis papers about John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.
"I think it's the best way to learn because it stays with you," says Lindell Palmer, a senior in Mark Dunetz's second period English class. "You can spend a whole semester preparing for a test and when it's over, that's it. This way you put some of yourself into the work. It's more personal. You see products of your work showing in your papers, visuals and presentations."
Dunetz, 26, previously taught at two large conventional high schools in the City before arriving at Vanguard. He despairs of the wide-ranging Regents exams and the test-prep curricula that accompany it. "No one's really interested in improvement," says Dunetz. "The politicians just want to build political capital. They are cynically proposing ridiculous ideas to a concerned public. Anyone in the public schools knows they are absurd."
Supporters of the alternative schools have held rallies in Albany and organized sporadic boycotts of eighth grade exams over the past two years. Ninety-one percent of graduates from the 28 alternative schools attend college compared to 63 percent of graduates from the remaining city schools, according to the New York Performance Standards Consortium. Tests are created, printed, distributed and scored by private, quickly profiting corporations such as McGraw Hill, ETS and The College Board. In a special report, stateline.org revealed that in 2001 over $400 million was spent by state education departments alone on testing.
Testing opponents are also pursuing a lawsuit against State Education Commissioner Richard P. Mills that seeks to reverse his decision forcing the alternative schools to give the Regents exams. They note that private schools (where several members of the Board of Regents have sent their children) have rejected the Regents exams as a waste of time. They argue for a portfolio system where a student is judged by her or his work over a period of time. At Vanguard, students have to complete nine portfolio projects (including an in-depth autobiography) and defend them before panels composed of teachers and fellow students before they can graduate.
"It's time-consuming," Dunetz notes. "But, it's a lot more personal a process than administering a test written by someone in Albany."
This story originally appeared in the New York Indypendent
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