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As testing anxiety peaks, student media campaign urges calm

Like students across the city, those at the Hudson High School of Learning Technologies can rattle off many reasons to loathe the state Regents exams.

Teens at the Chelsea school have had to slog through Saturday test-prep classes, retake tough tests several times, appeal low scores and — in at least one student’s case — retake two of the all-important exit exams this summer on his 17th birthday.

But unlike most students, those in Hudson’s 12th-grade government class decided to turn their Regents animus into action by launching an outreach campaign aimed at lowering the temperature around testing.

“I love school,” said Bruce Dixey, the birthday test-taker. “But when it comes to test prep, I just dread it.”

The class partnered with Generation Citizen, a nonprofit that sends college volunteers into high school classrooms to guide students in semester-long, applied-civics projects around local issues. Hudson’s volunteer was Andrew Zola, a freshman at Columbia University.

The Hudson students chose standardized testing and designed a media blitz — social media posts, YouTube videos, letters to parents — urging everyone to keep the tests in perspective: “Do not measure your self-worth on a petty grade,” reads the students’ blog, called Don’t Stress the Test!

On Tuesday, they will join more than 200 students from 19 schools to present their project at Generation Citizen’s second-annual “Civics Day” event at the Smithsonian Museum in Lower Manhattan.

While student aversion to tests is nothing new, the Hudson students’ campaign comes at a moment of high anxiety about testing in New York: grade 3-8 state exams tied to tougher standards caused scores to plummet this year, a new evaluation system for city teachers factors in test scores, and a rule change requiring higher Regents scores to graduate is now fully in effect. (The city’s graduation rate has bounced back after a slight dip last year, but many fear that could change as the Regents exams begin to test students on the tougher Common Core standards in coming years.)

Last week, a group of teachers in Brooklyn held a public forum to vent their frustrations with perceived over-testing. Tuesday evening, state education officials will host public forums in Brooklyn and the Bronx focused on the Common Core standards, where audiences are sure to raise concerns about the more challenging exams. Meanwhile, the city council is expected to pass a resolution Tuesday calling on the state Education Department to develop an assessment system that relies less on standardized tests.

The Hudson students — who invited a reporter to their school Monday as part of their media strategy — criticized the Regents exams as blunt, one-size-fits-all yardsticks that measure memorization better than critical thinking.

They suggested that the state allow students to complete other types of tasks — long-term projects, research papers, even speeches — as a means to show mastery. In fact, the state Board of Regents is expected to discuss at its meeting next week a plan to allow students to substitute an alternative assessment for one of the required Regents tests.

For now, the Hudson students said they want their peers to do well on the exams without getting too hung up on them.

“We want the students to take it serious,” said Nichole Urena, 17. “But we want them to be calm about it and just do their best.”

Principal Nancy Amling said schools should let students work on real-world projects like the outreach campaign, where the final goal is something other than a high score.

“Some place in the world, you need to have some time where it’s OK to be growing and not constantly be measured,” she said.