Yesterday, a class of my students repeating Earth Science took the January Regents in our subject. The Regents are summative state tests, and high school graduation in NY state is contingent upon passage of at least five of these exams (1 math, 1 english, 1 science, and Global and US Histories). If past performance gives any indication, then at least 2-3 of my students will score between 62-64 on this January regents. A scaled-score of 65 indicates passing and attains Regents credit. Anything between a 0 and 64 is effectively (except in a few select circumstances for students with disabilities) the same.

Upon entering this test, with one exception, none of my students had yet passed a science Regents. Each of those students are missing the one science exam credit they need to obtain a NYS Regents diploma (the statewide designation for high school graduation). They’re also 2 science exam credits away from an Advanced Regents diploma, a distinction earned for passing more exams, that helps them demonstrate ‘college-readiness’ to CUNY and SUNY system universities.

When my students’ tests arrive today at another school, they will join thousands of other identical exams for assembly line-style grading. Completely divorced from the locality and individuals where they originated, the tests will have to speak entirely for themselves. The teachers grading my students’ Regents have never heard them speak, deciphered their handwriting, worked with them after school or discussed science concepts with them. They’ve never seen these students work their hardest, or persevere through difficulties. They don’t know what something sounds like when my students put it in their own words. All they have to work from are a stack of inanimate tests. Some pass, others fail. And this is fair, because personal knowledge will not sully their grading or mar interpretative integrity. Heaven forbid a teacher looks twice through a 6th-year senior’s exam, just to check if maybe, just maybe, amidst the blur of hundreds or thousands of identically-structure testing forms, s/he made a mistake in grading. To see if maybe, just maybe s/he missed one point that the student had earned, making the difference between a 64 and a 65. Between credit and failure. Graduation and retention (or dropping out). Or maybe, just maybe, that junior applying early-admission to a competitive college should have had an 85 instead of an 84 (the magical distinction between “mastery” and simply getting by). But the teachers grading can only work from what appears on the test in front of them.

Before working as a teacher, I would have wholeheartedly subscribed to this outsourcing system, believing that it offered validity and fairness. Now I see the lacking wisdom and potential destructiveness of such an approach. Without personal investment and some measure of interpretive freedom, a 64 is a 64, an 84 an 84; and that’s that. What essential bit of knowledge does a 65 demonstrate that the student scoring a 64 must be lacking?

If I hadn’t worked with her for an entire semester, how would I know how much Gio had grown? Or how well Isaiah understood Earth Science and applied it to the world around him? Or how Shea, taking the class for the 4th time, helped communicate his knowledge to others during activities? What’s more meaningful, the number on a test booklet at the end of Rating Day, or the understanding a teacher has of his or her students, combined with the data of a summative exam? Which determinant seems more relevant, more fair? A more holistic, less standardized mode of assessment certainly offers less efficiency, but this does not equate to injustice or unfairness.

Surely, not every student I sent to take the Earth Science Regents deserve to pass. Some have shown little to no understanding of science concepts or behaviors befitting a student. Here I speak about those who will leave that test no closer to graduation, simply by merit of a point or two. Granted, I see where you could argue alternatively that students should be prepared to get 70s or 80s, and then the arbitrary line-in-the-sand has its power revoked. I echo the rigorous sentiment behind that stance and view it aspirationally. But, if that’s your argument, I invite you to join me in reforming the entirety of America’s educational system, ensuring educational equity across-the-board, and tutoring students after or before school 4 times a week. Your assistance is welcome. While we’re at it, let’s eradicate poverty too. How’s Tuesday for you?  

It’s ludicrous, really, what we have done to education in the name of reform to focus systemic efforts on “accountability”. Teachers will be held accountable, therefore teachers will teach better, therefore students will learn better. This supposedly “students-first” agenda really only reaches students as a third-order end. Certainly, unscrupulous educators, schools and departments exist (case-in-point, Atlanta, circa 2011). But current policies effectively elevate accountability––and the identification of the aforementioned bad apples––above the interests of the students themselves. Schools do not exist to be held accountable. They are held accountable to something–to the preparation and education of students. If we aim for accountability and trust that students will reap trickle-down benefits, we guarantee that we will fail to effectively educate our children. At best, we will reach students in spite of our concentration on district, school and teacher accountability, not because of it.

What are your thoughts on the issue? Would you give this article a 64 or a 65? Did I pass? Comment or Tweet @jlukechitwood.

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