Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, speaks...

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, speaks during the "Reimagining Readiness: Preparing Students for Life After Graduation" conference hosted by Nassau BOCES at LIU Post in Greenvale on Tuesday. Credit: Barry Sloan

The leader of a 1.7 million-member national teachers union came to Long Island on Tuesday to advocate for schools placing more emphasis on student projects such as building drones or defending conclusions on research papers — and less on state Regents exams.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, told about 400 local educators meeting on the campus of LIU Post in Greenvale that getting high school students engaged in projects based at least partly on personal interests was a proven way to boost high graduation rates and reduce dropouts. Weingarten went on to suggest the state’s graduation requirements that include passing a battery of Regents exams needed to be reconsidered.

“I really do believe that the testing, testing, testing era can be in the rearview mirror,” said Weingarten, whose union is based in Washington, D.C., and who emphasized she was speaking for herself and not the teachers’ organization. “It can’t be that passing five Regents exams is the be all and end all for all students.”

The five-hour session at Post, titled “Reimagining Readiness: Preparing Students for Life After Graduation,” was aimed at encouraging local educators to think outside the box in terms of diploma standards. More broadly, the concept was to rethink what students should learn during their 13 years of public education.

For education policymakers, the conference was both timely and controversial.

The state Board of Regents recently launched a two-year initiative meant to overhaul statewide graduation standards affecting hundreds of thousands of students on Long Island and statewide. The drive will begin next month with a series of regional workshops around the state, followed by the appointment of a blue-ribbon commission to make specific recommendations. 

Roger Tilles of Manhasset, who represents Nassau and Suffolk counties on the Regents board, helped organize Tuesday’s conference, which he has described as a supplement to the formal state process. The conference is the first of a planned three-part series hosted by Nassau BOCES.

Other conference speakers besides Weingarten were Leon Botstein, president of Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson; Raymond McNulty, president of the Successful Practices Network in upstate Rexford, and Kevin Law, president and CEO of the Long Island Association headquartered in Melville. 

Not everyone is comfortable with the talk of reducing emphasis on Regents exams. In September, the Long Island Council for the Social Studies, representing the region’s history teachers and their supervisors, issued a statement declaring that such exams, particularly in the social studies, “are essential for the survival of a democratic society.”

Much of the debate revolves around educational goals that, while worthwhile, also could turn out to be contradictory.

Take, for example, the argument advanced by some educational policymakers that students should spend less time taking tests, and more time engaging in civics projects such as voter registration drives. Representatives of the social studies council point out, on the other hand, that the Regents exams most likely to be eliminated are those covering U.S. and world history — courses that can help provide students with the factual knowledge needed to vote responsibly.

Another point of contention is whether student projects can substitute for standardized exams in determining who qualifies for high school diplomas.

Weingarten, in her 45-minute presentation, made a pitch for an approach used by 38 “consortium schools,” most of them located in New York City. Such schools have state waivers allowing them to skip all or most Regents exams in favor of student research papers or other projects.

Evaluating students based on projects has its limitations, however. In 1992, the state of Vermont scaled back a heavily publicized effort to judge students based on writing portfolios after independent analysts concluded that ratings given students were not reliably consistent.

Weingarten said she was not advocating for complete elimination of Regents exams or universal adoption of the “consortium school” approach.

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