At the end of school year, a colleague and I were chatting. He was telling me about a student of his. The student had poor attendance. All year, she had attended his math class just a handful of times. She was part of the classroom community, but only in theory. Her name was on the roster and my colleague knew who she was. That’s where it ended. Math class wasn’t a priority for her.
My colleague worked tirelessly to help her make it to class. He called home, tracked her down outside of lunch, offered incentives. But his efforts brought no change to her patterns of attendance.
In June, after 10 months together, her class was scheduled for a Regents exam. Like all state exams, the Regents is but one narrow way of measuring student understanding, but you wouldn’t know that from how much weight these tests are given by the powers that be. Despite their flaws, these tests reign supreme. We kick and scream, but in the end, all of us in the public domain bow to their authority.
Given her lackluster attendance and utter disconnect from the class, this student should have been shielded from the domineering influence of the Regents. She should have been exempt, unmoved by its control. Simply put, since she had little investment in whatever outcome awaited her, the Regents should have been meaningless to her.
But no. What happened on the day of the Regents? She showed up. Bright and early.
What’s interesting about this story is not how the student believed she could be successful on the exam with such little preparation. Instead, what I find fascinating is how the Regents accomplished something that the teacher never could. Despite her teacher’s Herculean efforts, nothing he did moved the needle. His efforts were mere child’s play when compared to the swift and unflinching dominance of the Regents. He practically moved mountains to get her to come to his class and nothing worked. The Regents snapped its fingers and she arrived promptly.
Hearing from my colleague how the exam cast its spell over this student was disappointing, but it wasn’t alarming. I’ve seen it happen many times before. For these students, in these instances, the Regents wields power that arrives every June like a savior: it instills undying hope that grades can be rescued if a 65 is earned. This power is absolute and supersedes anything their teacher might have done to support their growth in the months leading up to that ominous day in June. The teacher becomes a footnote.
While this phenomenon wasn’t new for me, because of a two-year, Covid-inspired hiatus from the exams, it did serve as a gloomy reminder: I matter very little when stacked up against the institution that is the New York State Regents. It commands a level of respect from students that I can only dream of achieving. It always attracts a crowd eager to oblige. It achieves more on paper (literally) than I ever have in my pedagogy.
Remote learning made me feel small. Now, with the return of the Regents, I remember how small I actually am.