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New York City
May 2002

High Stakes Test Impact Dropout Rates
By Assemblyman Steven Sanders

The news that the dropout rate in New York City high schools continues to surge is, regrettably, not a surprise, in light of the Regents “do or die” high-stakes graduation tests combined with vastly inadequate resources to provide students at risk with appropriate support.

Whether or not one supports the Board of Regents’ one-size-fits-all regimen that requires every public school student to pass five Regents examinations to graduate, to refuse to recognize that many students, including English language learners (new immigrants), students with learning disabilities, and others need extra help to be able to pass the five tests strikes me as naive—and tragic.

If a student has trouble “getting” science, for example, but does well in each of his other subjects and passes all his courses, doesn’t it make sense that our schools must have the resources to provide that student with extra preparation for a science Regents exam? What about a student who has perfect attendance and passes all of his courses, but is not a great test-taker—particularly under pressure? Or a student who struggles with history and wants to be, say, an electrician. Facing a history regents exam that seems daunting at best, is it a surprise that the student might choose to dropout?

Here’s what is so: Many people have confused standards with high-stakes testing. If one challenges the inflexibility of the five regents exam requirement, you are accused of being soft on standards. The problem is that the very inflexibility of our testing regimen—whether that precise regimen is right or wrong—when combined with inadequate resources and the absence of tutoring and extra help for kids that need it, creates an educational equivalent of capital punishment for these kids. We are pushing too many of them to the brink, off the cliff, and out of school. No Diploma stigmatizes and sentences many of these kids for life. They cannot get jobs, they cannot serve in the military, and we condemn them to a life that is pretty hopeless and totally unnecessary.

I have impressed upon State Education Commissioner Mills for over three years, and members of the Board of Regents, that we are on a very dangerous course, reflected by the mounting dropout rate in New York City public schools. At the same time, Commissioner Mills, the Regents and here in the city, Chancellor Levy—to their credit— have been outspoken and persistent in challenging Governor Pataki and City Hall that our resources are vastly inadequate. Here in the city, and in many other parts of the state, State aid is both inequitable and inadequate, as held by Justice DeGrasse in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity case that Governor Pataki—in one of his worst moves—is appealing.

Only with adequate resources can we provide the professional development, teacher mentoring, remedial services, tutoring and test preparation for city high school students who need it. Largely, the disgraceful under-funding of our schools creates an assault on the most vulnerable students, many of whom’s first language is other than English, are part of very low-income families, and face family, social or emotional pressures that make academic achievement more difficult.

There are those who will make excuses and switch the argument. “Bad teachers are the problem.” “If the Mayor was in charge, no kids would fail.” “The parents are to blame.” There are also the racial stereotypes: “Asian kids all do great in school,” or “When my parents came here from NAME OF COUNTRY, they worked hard and nobody gave them extra help!” These are all diversions and irrelevant: the fact is that unless we have the proper resources, we’ll keep losing good teachers and conditions will get worse. Without providing all the right guidance services and educational support, we will watch as tens of thousands of students simply give up and bail out. This is a shameful neglect of our responsibility to our young people, an assault on these student’s futures, and a lit fuse for the New York City of tomorrow. #

Steven Sanders is chairman of the NYS Assembly’s Committee on Education. You can e-mail him at sanders@assembly.state.ny.us or phone him at (212) 979-9696.


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