Brooklyn educators, advocates react to ‘necessary’ Regents cancellation

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As New Yorkers continue to navigate remote learning during the novel coronavirus outbreak, officials have cancelled the June Regents exam — a requirement for high school graduation that, unlike other state standardized tests, was still in flux until this week.

The cancellation, though formally announced on April 7, was teased by Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa at the board’s monthly meeting, held by teleconference on Monday.

“In times of crisis difficult decisions must be made and the Board of Regents knows these are ultimately the right ones for New York’s students,” Rosa said in a statement. “We are putting the safety of children, families and educators first, while ensuring that the hard work done by our students and teachers is honored.”

To graduate high school in New York State, seniors must pass five Regents exams in the subject areas of English, math, science and social studies. The tests — which date back to 1866 — are offered three times a year in January, June and August, and almost all are three hours long.

Brooklyn legislators, educators, and advocates alike have lauded the board’s decision as Brooklynites shelter in place from the virus. 

“I think Regents cancellation was necessary, not only to make sure the curve stays flat, but also to take the pressure off students and teachers who aren’t able to properly prepare for the Regents,” said one southern Brooklyn high school teacher, who requested anonymity to speak freely about the process. 

Preparing for Regents exams is difficult in a typical school setting, the educator lamented, and the Board of Regents’ delayed decision has weighed heavily on both students and educators as they adjust to remote learning.

“Teachers faced an incredibly difficult challenge teaching their students Regents material remotely, and as a result, they were assigning more work than the students were able to keep up with,” the teacher said. “Many of my students have reported feeling beleaguered and overwhelmed these last two weeks, and they all told me their primary concern was the Regents. So, while canceling the Regents will definitely have consequences that influence schedules next year and summer plans, canceling the Regents was the decision that yielded the most benefits and caused the least damage.”

“As a high school teacher, I would have been infuriated if the regents were still scheduled for this June,” said another teacher who asked to remain unnamed. “Realistically, there is no way to give students the same prep via remote learning. As someone who has prepped students for the [English Language Arts] Regents for six years now, I can attest that there is nothing like that in-person, one-on-one help when it comes to revisions and assistance in preparing for a Regents exam.”

If the exams had gone on as scheduled, she told Brooklyn Paper, the State Education Department would likely end up facing appeals not only for student scores, but for teacher ratings as well.

“I want to be very clear: I don’t know of any teacher that finishes their curriculum by March,” added Councilman Mark Treyger, a former educator who represents a swath of southern Brooklyn and who, prior to the pandemic, pushed to abolish the Regents exams altogether. “It is blatantly unfair to test students on topics and on material that they have never been taught. That’s number one.”

Treyger — who once taught history and economics at New Utrecht High School, and who currently chairs the council’s education committee — stressed that New York is one of only a few states that still requires a high school exit exam.

“I would also argue that students and educators are experiencing increased anxiety and trauma right now,” the pol went on, “so, to burden teachers with [Regents exams] and make students worry about whether or not they have to pass a test is crazy. That should be the least of their concerns as we deal with the worst pandemic in over 100 years.”

The decision to cancel the June Regents exams came shortly after Governor Andrew Cuomo extended the state’s PAUSE order until April 29. Meanwhile, New York City schools have been closed since mid-March to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, shifting students and educators to online learning — a method which has proved difficult for some families, such as those without access to smart devices or the Internet.

“This is good news for students, particularly students scheduled to graduate this year,” said Ashley Grant, coordinator of Advocates for Children of New York’s Coalition for Multiple Pathways to a Diploma. “However, we know that many students, including high school seniors, are still struggling to access remote learning. To ensure that these young people are college and career ready, it will be critical that, after this crisis ends, schools provide opportunities for these students to access the learning opportunities they missed during school closures.”

While the fate of the August exam remains in question, the State Education Department has since issued guidelines on how students otherwise fit to graduate can earn their diploma without taking their June Regents.

According to the agency, students who during the June 2020 examination period would have taken one or more Regents exams will be exempt from passing the assessments if they can meet one of four requirements, most of which include course credit as a supplement.