New York educators and community win victory against rigidity of statewide exam policy, 2001-2005

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Time Period:  
Location and Goals
United States
Location City/State/Province: 
New York City, New York
The campaign fought for high schools to be able to graduate their students through alternative evaluation, rather than be forced to base graduation on the statewide Regents' examination. Specifically, their goal was to extend a waiver from the exam granted to a coalition of high schools in New York City.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Deborah Meier and Ted Sizer began an initiative towards innovative structural and curricular educational reforms in New York. By the 1990s, 28 alternative high schools had begun using portfolios of Performance-Based Assessment (PBA) for graduation. Believing that in education one-size-does-not-fit-all, the goal of these schools was to create a curriculum that was personalized and student-driven by focusing on fostering inquiry, personalization, and exploration.

In order to strengthen their Performance-Based Assessment, Meier and Steve Phillips, the Superintendent of Alternative Education in New York City, requested a Regents exam waiver from Thomas Sobol, the Commissioner of Education in New York State. The Regents examination is a standard exam given throughout New York State. Meier and Phillips wanted a waiver to exempt a coalition of 24 schools from the state Regents exam for five years in order to test the effectiveness of these alternative assessments.

The educators hoped that in lieu of the Regent exams, their schools could use the PBA program to gain their students the Regents credit they needed to graduate. They believed that the one-size-fits-all assessment policy would negatively affect their curriculum and pedagogical goals. Putting an emphasis on standardized testing would put their “at risk” students even further at risk, Meier and Phillips believed. On 4 May 1995, Commissioner Sobol approved the waiver. Having gained legitimacy, the coalition began preparing their PBA programs.

However, that same year, Richard Mills, an avid supporter of standard-based reform, replaced Sobol as New York State's Commissioner of Education. Subsequently, in February of 1998, the New York State Education Department issued a notice to all of the public schools that their waivers would not be renewed. Mills wanted to close the state’s achievement gap between poor urban people of color and suburban whites by holding the schools accountable through the method of statewide standardized testing.

Immediately, leaders from the 28 schools began to organize meetings to decide on methods and organize plans to fight for their variance. They had been networked through educational organizations such as the Coalition of Essential Schools (CES), New Visions for Public Schools (NVPS), and Center for Collaborative Education (CCE). Organically, these meetings formally created the New York Performance Standards Consortium (NYPSC) in order to prepare to fight for their variance. At the head of the campaign, a co-directorship was formed between Urban Academy’s Ann Cook and Vincent Brivetti, principal at Humanities Preparatory Academy. The ideal goal of the coalition was to sustain the waiver for their alternative PBA variance indefinitely, but the primary goal was to extend the waiver in any way possible.

In March 1998, James Kadamus, Deputy Commissioner of Elementary, Middle, Secondary and Continuing Education, informed these schools that they had not found an acceptable alternative assessment and would continue unwaveringly with the execution of the standardized assessment policy. Vehemently disagreeing, NYPSC rallied its forces and participated in a special meeting with Kadamus. There they defined and described PBA in New York City and presented how these assessments are specifically conducted in schools. For increased credibility, Joe McDonald and Ted Chittenden, two prominent scholars, also discussed TANY’s collaboration with outside research partners. Finally, they requested that their waiver be extended until 2000. Their request was not honored. Instead, on June 8, 1998, the New York State Education Department formally informed the schools that their previous PBA had been superseded by the state-assessed Regent exam graduation policy. The policy was effective immediately, requiring the students to pass five Regents exams to graduate.

The NYPSC activists responded by forming more coalitions to further support and validate their cause. In order to further validate their work, NYPSC created an external oversight committee titled the Performance Assessment Review Board. This panel of 22 educational experts would visit each school annually making evaluations of the rigor of their PBA.

They continued to make their campaign highly publicized, aggressively promoting their alternative style of education. They continuously phoned, faxed, and e-mailed messages to policy makers and journalists to not only capture the ear of the public, but also the local and state officials.

Simultaneously, the NYPSC formed a partnership with parents of the students called the Parents’ Coalition to End High-Stakes Testing led by Jane Hirschmann. This partnership gave the campaign even more breadth of action. The parents, since not employed by the Education Department, could therefore criticize it without the fear of losing their jobs. Hirschmann organized with the most dedicated of the parents to strategize methods, examine important newspaper articles, and create a large network of parents who were ready to gather at a moment’s notice to protest in the city. Throughout the rest of the campaign, parents continued to play a large role in the activism. The Parents’ Coalition mobilized mass letter writing, fax, and telephone campaigns urging legislators and Regents to support their action on PBA. The parents strategically emerged as the face of the movement.

In 1999, Commissioner Mills was pressured by the Coalition to allow a state panel to review their alternative PBA. After the review, the panel announced that further review was needed. Unheedingly, Mills still refused to let the Consortium bypass the Regents Exams. However, the Coalition continued to use PBA because the commissioner had not completed a five-year examination that was prescribed by Sobol.

In January of 2000, Mills mandated the English Language Arts (ELA) Regents exam for every school. This applied even to juniors who technically had another year before they needed the exam for graduation. NYPSC and its supporters suggested a complete boycott of the exam, but then decided to not enroll juniors for the exam.

Still under NYPSC pressure, Mills announced that a blue ribbon panel would be assessing the Coalition’s methods. In the spring of 2001, the panel produced their findings stating that although there was not yet enough research to make a definitive case for the alternative assessment, the methods did show promising results for low-income and ESL students. The panel then suggested that three more years of research be set in motion and the variance extended. However, against the wishes of his panel, Mills declared that the Consortium would have to give the Regents exams that June.

NYPSC and supporters responded vehemently. In April, they called a press conference to publicly denounce the commissioner’s decision, framing it around the issues of equality and liberty. They stated that the parents and students deserved a choice in their type of education. On May 7, 2001, the Consortium’s educators and parents organized and participated in their largest rally on the steps of the state capitol in Albany calling for an alternative to the new testing system. The rally attracted much media attention. Over fifteen hundred supporters came with signs that read: “One Size Does Not Fit All”.

The Consortium also pursued legal action during this time in a case called New York State Performance Assessment Consortium v. New York State Education Department. Although they lost the case and appeal, the litigation process illuminated depositions, reports, and data that argued strongly against the reliability and validity of the Regents exams further embarrassing the state. From then on, the Consortium teamed up with the organization Time Out for Testing (TOFT) to bring to light NYSED mismanagement through a continuous dialogue with journalists, editors, and policy makers. One of their most prominent disclosures came in 2002, when a parent exposed the censorship on literary passages in the ELA tests that referenced race. Here, they bluntly framed the tests as a case of racism. This strategic framing gave their campaign increased validity.

TOFT continued to publicize mistakes while the parent organization tried to join with every group they could find that would give their campaign more weight. They made bright pie charts that depicted embarrassing and horrifying statistics about the standardized tests to meetings with numerous ethnically diverse groups including the United Federation of Teachers and the Service Employees International Union, the city’s black and Latino caucuses, and the New York City Board of Education. They successfully garnered support from all of these groups.

In September and October of 2003, hearings were held on the Regents exams. In response, the Consortium and TOFT organized and participated in a second rally on the capitol steps on October 15. Although 90% of the testimonials regarding the exams were critical, the commissioner still would not budge on his position of no exception.

In June of 2004, the NYPSC had garnered so much support that they were granted a one-year waiver by the Senate and state assembly. The Consortium used that time to gain the help of prominent academics. The academics would thoroughly analyze the Regents exams in their discipline and then publicize their findings. They were so critical of the exams’ content and form that twenty-five of the scholars signed a letter to the Board of Regents stating that the tests would negatively impact a student’s education.

By 2005, the successes of the Coalition’s educational programs were apparent in statistics making comparisons between the alternative schools and the schools that complied with the standardized assessment. The Senate voted to extend the waiver for another five-years with the requirement that the Coalition still needed to administer the English Language Arts section of the Regents exam.

The Consortium considered this a major victory. However, since the waiver was still not indefinite, they sent letters to all of the New York Superintendents asking them to sign a petition if they wanted to receive the same waiver in order to foster an even broader coalition of schools that were a part of the larger movement towards universal alternative PBA in New York.

Research Notes
Gormley, M. (2002, November 7). Superintendents to colleges: Disregard physics Regents score. The Associated Press State and Local Wire.

Goodnough, Abby. “Former Regents Want Graduation Plan Delayed”. New York Times. 1 March 2000. Web. 29 Oct 2011.

Grossman, Frank. “Dissent from Within: How Educational Insiders Use Protest to Create Policy Change”. Educational Policy 2010 24: 655. 2 June 2009. Web. 26 Oct 2011.

Hartocollis, Anemonia. “Judge Will Not Allow Schools to Drop-out of Regents Exams”.

NewYork Times. 29 Nov 2001. Web. 29 Oct 2011.

Ilnytsky, Ula. “NYC students boycott Regents exam to protest testing”. The Associated Press. 15 June 2001. Web. 29 Oct 2011.

Perez-Pena, Richard. “Opponents of New Regents Exams Take Protest to Capitol.” 8 May 2001. Web. 29 Oct 2011.

Karlin, R. (2003b, September 23). Regents exams criticized; education group says mandatory state testes are too difficult and are keeping students from graduating. The Times Union, p. A.

Karlin, R. (2003c, October 9). Regents approve changes to test. The Times Union, p. A1.

Karlin, R. (2003e, October 15). Racial gaps cited in Regents exams: Albany group says mandatory state test are punishing minorities. The Times Union, p. A1.

Medina, J. (2002a, June 25). More failing physics exam, and Albany is investigating. New York Times, p. 5.

Medina, J. (2002b, July 3). After complaints, New York state schedules repeat of Regents physics exam. New York Times, p. 6.

Willie, Charles V., Steven P. Ridini, David A. Willard. Grassroots Social Action. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Inc. Feb 2008. Print.

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Hannah Lehmann, 02/11/2011