A sign inside Urban Academy, a New York Performance Standards Consortium school, details the coalition's past struggles to maintain its Regents-exam waivers.
A sign inside Urban Academy, a New York Performance Standards Consortium school, details the coalition’s past struggles to maintain its Regents-exam waivers.

A coalition of small high schools where students complete graduation projects rather than take most Regents exams could soon add several more schools to its ranks – if the state lets those schools skip the tests.

The New York Performance Standards Consortium is in talks with the state to get Regents-exam waivers for as many as 22 schools that follow the group’s instructional model and use alternative assessments, but currently must also administer the Regents tests. The schools, which have been part of a multi-year pilot, include several high schools in the Internationals and Expeditionary Learning networks. Many of them have staff members who worked at consortium schools in the past.

The consortium currently includes 28 public schools — 26 in New York City and one each in Rochester and Ithaca — where students are exempt from taking all Regents exams except for English. Instead, they must earn class credits and complete intensive projects to graduate.

The group and its supporters – which include the city teachers union and more recently the city Department of Education – have lobbied the state to let more schools trade the Regents tests for the long-term projects, citing data showing higher-than-average graduation and college-enrollment rates among consortium schools.

“I think it’s a disgrace that these schools have to apply for a waiver to do more work and prepare children better,” said United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew, adding that obtaining the state waivers is rarely easy. “We know every time we do it it’s a political battle.”

Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch declined to discuss the consortium or the waivers due to the ongoing talks. Ann Cook, the consortium’s executive director, also declined to discuss the talks but said she expected an answer from the state soon.

The consortium must ask the State Education Department to renew the test waivers for the schools that have them every few years, which the Board of Regents must approve. In the past, the consortium has sometimes needed to lobby lawmakers to get the waivers renewed, but Commissioner John King most recently granted the schools a three-year waiver extension in July.

The current negotiations are around whether the consortium can add new members, something that could be politically tricky for King to allow at a time when the state’s emphasis on standardized testing has come under fire. Some of the pilot schools have followed the consortium’s alternative-assessment model for years in hopes of getting their own waivers to stop administering Regents exams.

Students seeking diplomas at consortium schools skip the math, science, and social studies Regents tests. Instead, they complete a literary essay (in addition to taking the English Regents exam), social-studies research paper, applied-math project and science experiment, which they must defend before panels of teachers and outside observers. A student at the Institute for Collaborative Education, for instance, conducted a neurobiology experiment and wrote a 15-page paper comparing the writing of Ralph Ellison and Albert Camus for his assessment projects one year.

The city Department of Education gave the consortium funding a few years ago to train the pilot schools in its methods. Since then, it has pushed the state to offer those schools Regents waivers.

“We think this is very strong work that should be expanded,” said Shael Polakow-Suransky, the department’s chief academic officer. The school where Polakow-Suransky was the founding principal, Bronx International High School, is one of the consortium pilot schools.

Khadim Seck, a senior at Urban Academy, shows off artwork by a Japanese artist he analyzed for an art-criticism assessment project.
Khadim Seck, a senior at Urban Academy, shows off artwork by a Japanese artist he analyzed for an art-criticism assessment project.

The waiver wait has strained some schools. Jamie Munkatchy, a science teacher at Validus Preparatory Academy, a consortium pilot school in the Bronx, said that for the past six years she and her colleagues have attended consortium trainings, helped evaluate other schools’ graduation projects, and guided their own students to complete similar projects.

But still, their students must take and pass all five Regents exams required for graduation.

“You get tired of the consortium telling you waivers are going to come, but they never come,” Munkatchy said. “They would just say, ‘Be patient, it’s going to happen.'”

The situation changed recently for Validus. When consortium officials held a vote at the school to check for support of the alternative-assessment model, less than 80 percent of the staff voted for it. Now the consortium does not plan to seek a waiver for the school.

The consortium says it would like to secure waivers for all of the pilot schools that have participated in the trainings and where the entire staff backs the consortium model.

But some current and former pilot-school staffers have complained about a lack of transparency in the waiver process, where the consortium leaders lobby state education officials in private for the test exemptions on the schools’ behalf. Cook declined to provide GothamSchools a list of the pilot schools.

The consortium says it has asked the state to develop a more formal process for granting the waivers.

In the meantime, some pilot schools have struggled to balance the consortium-style project work with preparing students for the Regents.

“It’s kind of like dancing with two partners,” said Matt Brown, principal of Kurt Hahn High School, a pilot school that is part of the Expeditionary Learning network. “We feel like we would do a better job for our kids if we could focus on the performance-based assessments.”

Claire Sylvan, executive director of the Internationals Network for Public Schools, said of the network’s 15 New York City high schools, three are founding members of the consortium and the rest are consortium pilot schools.

“We do find that we can’t go as in depth in our performance tasks and portfolios in our schools that are required to do Regents as we can in our other schools,” Sylvan said, adding that she has not been informed if or when the pilot schools might receive waivers.

Leo Casey, executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute, who previously worked closely with the consortium schools when he was the UFT’s vice-president, said he did not expect any schools to adopt the consortium model simply as a way to sidestep the state tests.

“It shouldn’t be seen as an opt-out,” he said. “It’s taking on a great deal more work.”

Khadim Seck, a senior at Urban Academy, cited an art-criticism project where he analyzed the work of the Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara — he creates “pictures that look cute, but there’s something dark lurking” — as an assessment that spurred learning in a way a typical test could not.

“Students are more than just a grade,” he said. “They’re actual thinkers.”