By Kevin Jeng, Team Coordinator Mott Hall Bronx High School
In the front of our classroom, we have a sign that counts down the number of times we will see our students before they take the NY State Integrated Algebra Regents Examination. Currently, that countdown is at 1, which means that my students have just one more day of classroom instruction before they take the Algebra Regents Thursday, June 14th. With the state test approaching so quickly, it’s interesting to see the many different reactions that the looming test elicits from my students.
For some, this moment is met with a nervous energy; they are about to take a test that they have been gearing up for all year, some putting in countless hours of work both in and out of class, during Saturday school, and even during lunch periods. These students want to prove to themselves, to their families, and their peers that not only can they pass the regents but surpass expectations and score well into the 80’s and 90’s. Yet for others, this moment is met with fear, a fear that now that the state test looms just a few days away, minimal effort during the year coupled with the fact that time is running out causes some students to panic. Not passing the regents means not passing the course. Furthermore, the Algebra Regents is the only mathematics state test that students are required to pass in order to graduate from high school. For my students who failed the exam last year and are repeating the course, their efforts are re-doubled because they realize just how important it is to pass this test. Excuses that they have used before: “I don’t want to study,” “I don’t like math,” and “I don’t care about the test,” just don’t hold up anymore now that the reality of June 14th approaches.
It can be hard to come by things that motivate high school students. Money motivates. I can bet a “Mr. Jeng dollar” with a student that she won’t be able to get her entrance slip quiz completely correct, and instantly I hear the ferocious scratches of pencil on paper. Candy motivates. “I’ll bet you a jolly rancher that you can’t get this problem correct without my help,” I say. The student quickly retorts, “Shoot Mr. Jeng! I got this!” But these methods of motivating students are ephemeral and shallow. Money and candy can only motivate for so long, and when it comes to investing kids in a subject notorious for being “boring,” these external rewards can hardly motivate consistently throughout the course of a year.
In searching for the perfect motivator to get my students to do work, I have found the regents to be my answer. For the past month, students have been working harder than ever in class because they understand the urgency of doing well on the regents. The miracle of the regents as a motivator lies in the fact that it does not motivate just temporarily, nor does it focus on external rewards unrelated to learning the material at hand. Instead, the regents motivates by focusing on the inherent reward of doing well on a test, achieving academically, and ultimately being invested in one’s own education. Whether for reasons of reaching a personal target score on the regents or for the basic reason of passing the class and graduating from high school, students are realizing how important doing well on the state test means in maintaining a good high school record, moving on to the next course, and staying on track to graduate from high school. Given this type of internal motivation, the impact that the regents is having on classroom performance and productivity is palpable, strong, and consistent.
The importance of the regents, however, doesn’t just lie in the fact that it is needed to graduate high school; in fact it goes well beyond that time frame and into a student’s college years. There is a staggering statistic that for people ages 25-28, only 31% have earned a bachelor’s degree. This statistic shrinks to just 8% for people who come from low-income communities. This national college completion rate is shocking to me, but as a teacher I am even more bewildered particularly because my students come from low-income communities. According to this statistic, out of the approximate 124 students that I teach, roughly 10 of them are predicted to graduate college by 28. (Yes, I’m a math teacher. And yes, that figure is difficult to swallow every time I read it.)
This is where the importance of the regents comes in. In order for my students to avoid taking remediation courses in most New York City community colleges, they need to get a 80 or higher on the math regents. If they don’t reach a 80, they know that upon enrolling in college, they will have to take remediation courses for Algebra in addition to earning credits from taking actual college courses. I can’t imagine the extra pressure both academically and financially that taking these remediation courses can have on a student. It’s no wonder that faced with challenges like these, students who have not performed well on their state tests fail to finish college and attain their bachelor’s degree. So, while my students may see themselves as only taking one high school mathematics regents exam in a few days, in my mind, they are actually fighting against a sobering statistic that has doomed them to fail in their college life. I am fortunate to be one of five teachers in a classroom working in small groups every day to try to meet my students’ needs at their individual academic levels so that they can beat the odds. Hopefully, with the increased support that we have given our students to be prepared for the regents this year, come this Thursday June 14th, they will be well equipped to combat and change the trend that has historically relegated them to a position of failure. My fingers are crossed alongside my students.