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Legislative Memo: Alternative Assessments to Regents Exams

The proposed legislation would restore the authority of twenty-eight public high schools that comprise the New York Performance Standards Consortium (“Consortium”) to use alternative methods of assessing student performance in lieu of certain Regents examinations. Students enrolled in Consortium schools would still have to pass the English and mathematics Regents exams.

These schools were granted a waiver in 1995 from the requirement that students pass five Regents exams as a graduation requirement, but the Commissioner of Education has refused to extend the waiver.

The proposed legislation would also require the Commissioner of Education to develop a “portfolio performance-based alternative assessment” in lieu of three Regents exams. This alternative assessment model would provide for the evaluation of students’ achievement based upon a compilation of classroom work, research papers and projects. It includes testing that requires students to perform complex tasks or generate responses to questions that demonstrate knowledge or skill.

The NYCLU strongly supports this legislation.

High-Stakes Testing

Under current state Department of Education rules, all New York public school students must pass five Regents exams in order to graduate from high school. Thus, a high-school student may demonstrate through course work and classroom performance that he or she has the skills required of a high school graduate and may have already been accepted to college, but if that student fails one Regents test by a single point he or she is not allowed to graduate.

This one-size-fits-all evaluation prototype has led increasing numbers of students – disproportionately blacks and Latinos – to drop out of school. With the introduction of the new high-stakes Regents examinations in 2000, the official dropout rate for New York City high school students increased to 20.3 percent.

Several large high schools that admit over one thousand students in ninth grade graduate fewer than two hundred of those students four years later. New York State ranks a dismal 45th among states in overall graduation rates and ranks last in the country in graduating black and Latino students.

These dropout statistics mask another, even more insidious phenomenon. In order to improve their performance on the Regents exams, many schools are winnowing out their low achievers. In other words, the use of high-stakes tests as a graduation requirement creates a perverse incentive that encourages educators to turn away – or push out – students who are at risk of failing the tests.

For example, in the academic year 2000-2001, approximately 55,000 New York City high school students were “pushed out” – for example, transferred to a Graduate Equivalency Degree (GED) program – rather than face likely failure on the Regents exams.

Alternative Performance Assessments

Consortium schools have developed creative, rigorous and comprehensive alternative performance assessment tools that lead to superior learning, to higher graduation rates, and to greater numbers of graduates enrolling in college.

This model evaluates students’ performance based on essays, research papers and projects, oral presentations and debate, and mathematical applications. Schools that use this alternative assessment model have demonstrated superior student performance as compared with schools that use high-stakes tests.

Consortium schools had a lower dropout rate than New York City public schools for the class of 2003 (10.6% vs. 20.3%, respectively) and a higher college acceptance rate (87.8% vs. 70.1%, respectively).

This record of success is all the more significant given that Consortium schools serve New York’s most vulnerable student population – young people who enter high school under-prepared and at a high risk of dropping out.

Consortium schools have more students of color, more students who qualify for a free lunch, more students receiving special education services, and more entering students scoring below the state standard on reading and math tests in comparison to the student population in New York City high schools.


The use of alternative performance assessment by Consortium schools is an education success story. To deny these highly successful schools the authority to employ alternative assessment techniques is bad education policy, plain and simple. The pedagogical value of alternative assessment models is well documented. It is incumbent upon the legislature to require that New York develop an educational assessment model that promotes learning and life success.

For the foregoing reasons the NYCLU strongly supports S.3192/A.6286.

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