Revised Regents a boon to struggling schools

Increased opportunities to learn vocational skills would be legitimized by new topics on Regents exams

Standardized testing in Buffalo could become a little less tedious for high school students, as New York’s Board of Regents prepares to votes on a proposal which would allow testing in a wider variety of subjects. Currently, students are required to pass Regents exams in English, U.S. history and government, global history and geography, science and math in order to earn a Regents diploma.

Expanding testing beyond traditional academic subjects is an important step in acknowledging the diversity of students’ interests and skills. It displays students who thrive in vocational settings – but may struggle in traditional classrooms – their work is valued as well and worthy of a diploma.

Under the proposed plan, students can opt out of one the traditional exams and take a test related to technical or vocational skills such as information management, manufacturing, cooking and arts.

This proposal holds a great deal of promise. But it does raise some questions that need to be addressed. Objectively assessing a student’s aptitude at math or history isn’t much of a challenge, but with new examinations testing students’ skills as artists or chefs, evaluation becomes a much more subjective experience.

Assessment criteria for these new topics will need to be carefully developed and rigorously reviewed, to ensure that these tests still act as a standard towards which students can strive.

Of greater importance is the matter of balance – offering students greater incentives to take relevant technical courses while not detracting from their academic experiences. Vocational study is a fantastic option for many students, but traditional academic courses still have merit for much of these high schools’ populations, and these increased testing options could become a distraction without proper management.

If students view the revised Regents as an opportunity to avoid taking a math test, then these changes could end up doing more harm than good. The district needs to make it clear that testing in technical areas is not an easy way out, but rather an equivalent, rigorous option that requires equal preparation and study.

Fortunately, this seems achievable as the proposal comes alongside State Education Commissioner John King’s critique of school administrators’ apparent apathy toward vocational opportunities for high school students.

Last year, the commissioner introduced a program that required the district to provide students at East and Lafayette high schools – two of Buffalo’s most underperforming schools with many impoverished and immigrant students – free access to career and technical education courses at Erie 1 BOCES, Buffalo’s center for vocational training. Currently, the center primarily serves nearby suburban and rural districts, but the opportunity for schools in the city of Buffalo to participate now exists.

Despite the promise of this program, which could allow students (many of whom are still learning English) who struggled in academic classes to succeed in alternative environments and learn skills they might find more valuable than those gained in a traditional classroom, district leaders failed to promote it among students, and many didn’t enroll or ended up dropping out.

But the commissioner reported the students he spoke with, who took courses at BOCES, highly enjoyed the experience. With a new school year beginning, Buffalo high schools can try again, and acknowledge and appreciate the diverse needs of their students and utilize the resources that the commissioner and the district have handed to them.

The legitimization of vocational skills the revised Regents would allow might just be the encouragement that administrators need to fully embrace this opportunity and share it with students who so desperately need a second chance.