Coronavirus wipes away January's state Regents exams

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A No. 2 pencil perches atop the desk, ready to go at a moment’s notice. You clutch another for dear life, as you ponder the five choices in front of you: A, B, C, D or E? Is E even an option? 

The clock’s ticking seems louder than normal in the silence of the classroom as you look around and discover your peers pondering the same questions.

Many students of a certain age are familiar with the standardized test setting. But it’s not just the specially engineered psychological torture for students it’s often made out to be. In fact, many of these tests — particularly at the state level — measure proficiency and growth throughout the academic year.

But it seems New York state will be without these benchmarks for at least a while more. After canceling Regents exams in June, the state has done it again for January, meaning it could be next summer before anyone has a chance to stress over the achievement tests again.

The culprit behind the move, of course, is the coronavirus pandemic.

“Throughout the pandemic, our priority has been the health and well-being of our students and educators,” said Betty Rosa, the state’s interim education commissioner, in a release. “We determined the January Regents exams could not be safely, equitably and fairly administered across the state, given where the pandemic currently stands.”

Students not ready?

There’s no decision yet about Regents exams next June. But Michael Flanagan, a social studies teacher at Riverdale/Kingsbridge Academy, believes no one should mark their calendars for it, especially given the difficulties of teaching the Regents curriculum in hybrid and remote classes.

“Unless this vaccine comes through and the schools open up fully within the next few months, I don’t see how they could justify holding June Regents exams,” Flanagan said. “Speaking for someone who has been teaching hybrid since September, it’s going to be almost impossible for teachers to cover the state curriculum this year, in whatever subject they are teaching. We are only covering about half of the material because of the nature of hybrid learning.”

Passing the necessary Regents exams are usually necessary for a student to graduate — which Flanagan thinks makes the test too high-stakes. That requirement, of course, was waived during the coronavirus pandemic. And when June rolls around, it might need to be waived again, if the current nationwide uptick in coronavirus cases is any indicator.

But while pushing through the Regents exams next summer might not be popular among some teachers — and especially among students — Paula White, the executive director of Educators for Excellence, believes they’re absolutely necessary, and should only be canceled if absolutely necessary. 

Regents benchmarks have essentially become non-existent in hybrid and remote learning, White said, if certain city education department data are any indicator. Over the past few months, only 280,000 of the city’s more than 1.1 million students are attending in-person classes at all, and there are about 31,000 public school students who are unaccounted for since the shift to hybrid and remote learning.

“My concern is we’re going to be in a black hole of data, where we will not know how students are doing,” White said. “We will not know what is the impact of what we are experiencing on their lives. And this is very important and very impactful because achievement gaps are going to morph into achievement gulfs, and that will have ramifications on students’ lives well into adulthood.”

However, White also recognizes that the decision to cancel the Regents isn’t based on wanting to give New York’s public school students a break — it’s based on safety. With nearly each passing day, the country’s daily coronavirus case count breaks the previous day’s record. And every day since Nov. 5 — the day the January Regents were canceled — that daily number has soared above 100,000.

If it’s still not safe to conduct in-person exams come June, White believes there might be other ways to track student progress while keeping them safe — like having them take the exams remotely.

“I certainly think the DOE has the resources to be able to figure it out,” White said. “But first and foremost, we have to be committed to administering these assessments so that we can be clear about where our students stand, and how much learning have they been able to acquire over this period.”

Should Regents go away permanently?

While remote testing might be a possibility, some current — and former — teachers are not enthusiastic about it. Congressman-elect Jamaal Bowman, himself a former educator, believes holding the June Regents could exacerbate educational inequalities, as many students don’t have access to the academic support they need.

“With the COVID-19 pandemic, students haven’t been able to access the full extent of education and support services via virtual learning,” Bowman said. “Too many students, especially Black, Brown and poor students, will be adversely affected if we continue to treat this time as any other and move forward with the Regents exams.”

But Bowman doesn’t just support canceling the Regents this January and June: He thinks they should be abolished completely. With the exception of the English Regents exam. To Bowman, they’ve largely become defunct because they have little to no impact on college admissions.

“Research shows that colleges are no longer looking at Regents exam scores to determine admission,” Bowman said. “Rather, they are looking at GPA and AP coursework. So why force our educators to spend so much time focusing on high-stake standardized testing over educating and teaching the whole child?”

But the Regents might actually have some effects on other tests. While many colleges might not look closely at Regents scores for admissions, they look at SAT and ACT scores. And Enza Jonas-Giugni, a senior at the Bronx High School of Science, found the Regents actually helped her get ready for those national standardized tests.

“The SAT subject material has a lot to do with Algebra II as a subject,” Jonas-Giugni said. “So I found that taking the Algebra II Regents in sophomore year was a really helpful thing because it allowed me to prepare for the SAT. Having to take the Regents exams forced me to study the entire subject over and over again and really get comfortable with the material.”

But while Jonas-Giugni found the Regents helpful in some ways, she’s in favor of them going away for now.

“If things continue at the rate they’re currently going — which is not exactly in the best direction — then I think canceling the Regents Exams would be a good thing,” Jonas-Giugni said. “But if there’s a vaccine or if something else drastically changes with the pandemic, and there’s less stress in students’ lives, I do think it’s a good thing, because it does really offer students the ability to prove to colleges — or whatever they might be pursuing after high school — that they did fulfill these requirements.”

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