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Lessons—A Worthwhile Substitute for the Regents Exams

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These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.

[ THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN THE NEW YORK TIMES ON FEBRUARY 21, 2001 ]

A worthwhile substitute for the Regents exams

By  Richard Rothstein

A number of New York City alternative schools want to substitute their student projects, known as portfolios, for Regents exams as graduation requirements in math, social studies and science. The New York State education commissioner, Richard P. Mills, who has already said that all students must take the English Regents, promises a decision on these other subjects soon.

The waivers sought by those portfolio schools should be granted. Requiring all prospective graduates to pass all Regents exams could needlessly increase the dropout rate, especially among those students in alternative schools who have already failed to adapt to traditional schools. Mr. Mills worries about how to enforce standards if schools substitute portfolios for exams, but he has other tools for making schools accountable, and he should use them.

Vincent Brevetti, principal of one portfolio school, Humanities Preparatory Academy in Manhattan, says its system works. When students plunge into a topic, he says, they develop advanced skills by evaluating conflicts in evidence and methods.

Humanities Prep admits transfers like 17-year-old  Asma Fouathia, at risk of dropping out elsewhere, as well as ninth graders who reflect a citywide range of reading skill. Mr. Brevetti thinks Asma, an Algerian immigrant, ranks about in the middle of 12th graders in ability.

In January, Asma appeared before evaluation panels at the school. To one panel, she defended a paper on whether sanctions or South Africans themselves had made apartheid fall. To another, she presented her calculations of a pinball trajectory.

In social studies, she got three out of four points (two is passing) from a panel of two teachers and an outsider, Joseph Cassidy, principal of Clinton Junior High. The panelists had read Asma’s paper concluding that sanctions had ended apartheid, and then questioned her for half an hour.

Mr. Cassidy asked how Bantu children felt about school. (Asma said that she couldn’t speak for the children but that their Afrikaner-run classes had skipped many topics.) Another panelist told Asma to define sanctions (she did) and asked whether they were now used in foreign policy (she didn’t know). Mr. Cassidy challenged the full-page length of a paragraph in her paper (Asma realized that new ideas needed new paragraphs, but hadn’t applied the rule here).

The panelists then met privately to assign points on standardized forms. Asma was penalized because a Nelson Mandela quotation had been poorly utilized, but gained for overall subject knowledge.

Asma also got three points from her math panel, whose outside evaluator was Justin Leites, a United Nations official who had taught logic at Yale. Mr. Leites praised Asma’s algebra, geometry, trigonometry and physics skills. But he reduced her score because she failed to identify friction as the reason real pinballs don’t follow her mathematical model.

Such learning has a price. Months of apartheid research may not leave time to cover all the important dates from global history. But while knowing chronology is important, students may better remember facts learned in an inquiry.

Mr. Brevetti says students not only love to do projects but also are under pressure to do them well. If his students could get diplomas by taking Regents exams, fear of not graduating would no longer spur them to excel in portfolios.

Some people say alternative schools should require both Regents exams and portfolios, because if schools truly teach the advanced skills that portfolios require, students with projects could pass the Regents as well.

Alternative-school leaders counter by saying that if students must learn all the facts covered by Regents exams, little time will remain for the challenge of explorations. And potential dropouts would not enroll in alternative schools if they had to fulfill all the exam requirements of their previous schools, and do project presentations as well.

Mr. Mills could give waivers, and still ensure that these schools were rigorous.

Instead of letting principals themselves recruit evaluators like Mr. Cassidy and Mr. Leites, he could appoint state-trained panelists to judge whether portfolios met high standards.

He could send inspectors to see if curriculum was adequate. Indeed, inspectors should visit all schools, not only those seeking waivers.

And he could require alternative schools to give Regents exams without individual scoring. Scores from a sample of students could reveal instructional quality.

Alternative-school leaders claim success in sending potential dropouts like Asma Fouathia to college, without need for remediation. Mr. Mills could collect college enrollment data to check this.

If alternative schools gave Regents exams without individual stakes, students would need portfolios to graduate, so teachers could still utilize this incentive. And Mr. Mills would have data showing which alternative schools had high standards, and which did not.

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