Multiple Pathways to a High School Diploma: Should the Regents Expand the Number of Portfolio/Roundtable Waiver Schools?

For fifteen years the Performance-Based Assessment Consortium  has chugged along, under the radar, assessing kids based upon portfolios of student work presented to a roundtable of adults, both teachers and “critical friends,”

Eric Nadelstern, at that time the principal of Long Island City International High School and Peter Steinberg, a teacher, union activist and founder of Fannie Lou Hamer High School convinced the NYS Commissioner of Education to grant about forty high schools a waiver from the state exams, at that time the Regents Competency Test (RCT).

Subsequent state commissioners have modified the waiver and a number of schools have dropped by the wayside. Currently there are 28 consortia schools – students must pass the English Regents, the portfolio/roundtable system serves as a waiver from the other four Regents exams (Math, Science, Global Studies and American History).

Ann Cook, the current Consortium honcho has asked the Regents to add nineteen schools to the consortia.

(See the Wall Street Journal Article: A respected consortium of high schools exempted from testing wants to expand its portfolio. (WSJ)

Through the years I have sat as a “critical friend” on a number of roundtable assessments, usually impressed with the quality of the student work, disappointed a few times with both the quality of the work and the attitude of the school.

Performance-Based Assessment requires a different approach to teaching. Schools must develop different curricula, different curriculum maps and a significantly different style of teaching within classrooms. Far more project-based instruction, far more differentiation, far more individual attention to student needs – all good things.

The request to add schools to the consortia waiver schools comes at a time when the state officialdom is conflicted. The folks in Albany, the Department of Education, have been following two divergent paths.

A total commitment to the Common Core State Standards (Take a Look at the CCSS here), which will clearly be far more rigorous than the current state assessments, and, a quiet attempt to “dumb down” Regents exams.

A year ago the two-day, three hours a day English Regents was reduced to a one-day, three hour exam: low and behold passing rates soared. The Commissioner has been pushing to make the Global Studies Regents “optional” because the failure rate is too high.

What is so distressing is the Global Studies Regents is an excellent exam that requires a range of factual knowledge, the ability to analyze and critique a number of documents and write a thematic essay. (Try your hand at the June, 2012 Global Regents here)

Commissioner King totally commits the state to the Common Core while at the same time attempts to ease high school graduation requirements to increase graduation rates – a bipolar disorder?

The just released PARCC (the consortium of states to which NYS belongs) sample assessment prototypes  are far more complex than the current Pearson- developed tests.

Is enlarging the Consortia antithetical to SED/Regents commitment to the Common Core? Or, a sensible path to creating authentic multiple pathways to high school graduation?

I have advocated for schools to require an interdisciplinary senior thesis in addition to the Regents exams. The opportunity to choose a topic and apply the skills a student has acquired to explore, in depth, a topic that interests the student and to make an oral presentation to the school community and defend their work. In my view: preparation for college and the world beyond.

The application to expand the waiver raises a range of questions:

* How does the SED monitor the portfolio/roundtable process to assure the quality of the work?

* What is the process for new schools to join the Consortia? Are schools simply fleeing the Regents environment without the capacity to support a portfolio system?

* Do schools have to maintain standards to remain in the Consortia and without Regents exams how would we define these standards?

* How will the PARCC assessment impact the Consortium schools waiver?

And, I’m sure many, many other questions…

I would hope the Regents give the expansion request a full hearing, perhaps a period for public comment and create a new pathway to a high school diploma – a portfolio/roundtable cohort of schools.


3 responses to “Multiple Pathways to a High School Diploma: Should the Regents Expand the Number of Portfolio/Roundtable Waiver Schools?

  1. Peter, I wish I could share any enthusiasm for portfolio based assessment. Even with just a handful of schools, you admit that there have been problems. If the program were expanded you could expect more, lots more. I realize that nobody likes testing. But these are Regents exams, passed by reasonably good and many mediocre students for generations. Mastery of the subject was reasonably and fairly measured. Ironically, Eric Nadelstern the erstwhile champion of portfolio assessment and testing opponent, became the prime minister of the testing regime, proving once again that in Bloomberg’s New York self interest and hypocrisy rule. Now since he was cast back into the wilderness, passed over for Chancellor in favor of Cathie Black, he has found religion again?
    Test kids, honestly and fairly. Design the tests to measure kids, not punish teachers, and design them in ways to discourage cheating. This is the only real way to assess children with a uniform system. Apply this system to every school in the exact same way.


  2. Eric Nadelstern

    Andy, your peronal invective aside, (all the more baffling since we have never met or had a conversation), your own reasoning would have us abandon Regents exams. If the disqualifier for portfolio assessment is that there have been “a few problems,” then the rampant cheating that has taken place on Regents exams for years should cause us to doubt the efficacy of those exams as well.

    Hypocrisy or simply a case of never having come across an exam that yoiu didn’t like? Since we don’t know each other, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and believe it’s the latter.


  3. Data available at the Consortium website demonstrates its effectiveness and success on multiple indicators, well beyond what typical Regents-driven schooling manages. See “Education for the 21st Century” at


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