Jeetu, a 12th-grade boy, sat in my office, eager to talk.
“You’re the principal, so I can tell you anything, right?”
I was tickled by Jeetu’s question. A lot of kids might have the opposite thought: You’re the principal so let me choose my words carefully and make sure you don’t find out whatever I’m hiding.
Jeetu took New York State Regents exams* in January. I was meeting with every 12th grader who had taken exams and experienced at least one disappointment in failing an exam. For many of the students, I called this a “reality check”: while some had failed an exam, they had also passed others and needed to take stock of their success; or, their failing grade was close to passing and still showed remarkable progress.
Jeetu was an interesting case, though. He had taken English the previous year and received a 55% indicating his score could only improve this year. This time, his grade dropped to 35%. I was surprised: how had he done worse when his teachers had reported so much progress in class? They were convinced he would far exceed the passing score of 65%. As a result of his declined score, we had given him two English periods this semester to support him in graduating in June.
Jeetu launched into his question: “OK, can you switch me out of my second English class? I don’t need two English periods.”
“But Jeetu, you need to pass the English exam.”
“No, I found out I can pass with 55%.”
Aha. Jeetu had found out that indeed, English Language Learners who arrived in the U.S. in 9th grade or later can appeal to graduate with an English exam score of 55%. The appeal process is involved: the student must have attempted the exam at least twice, teachers and administrators must prove that the student took advantage of multiple support and study opportunities and that this is the school’s and student’s best effort. The appeal must be approved by the superintendent.
We had had a handful of students graduate with this kind of appeal over the years, but in each case, we had genuinely felt that the student had struggled mightily with English and come from a challenging starting point so that the 55% was their best effort during their time at the school.
It was clear that Jeetu’s knowledge of this appeal process had impacted his performance on the English exam. He hadn’t put forth his best effort, assuming he had already done “good enough.”
I look at Jeetu and my response was clear: “Jeetu, yes, there is an appeal process. However, the person who has to sign off on the appeal is me, and I have to do it because I feel that 55% is truly your best effort at this time. Jeetu, I am not going to sign an appeal for you. You can easily get a 65% or higher on this exam.”
Jeetu looked shocked.
I told his English teacher about the conversation and a day later, the teacher quickly got Jeetu’s buy-in to stay in the second class and go for a higher grade.
When the exam appeal options first were available a few years ago, we didn’t tell our students about them, so it came as a surprise to the few who ultimately graduated with them. I can see now that over the years, the appeals have become public knowledge. While our students certainly have the right to know about them, I can see how it’s crucial for us to guard the use of the appeals so that they are used as their intent: a genuine “safety net” for those who need it, rather than a way to demand less greatness from those who can accomplish it.
I was glad Jeetu had felt he could confide in me. And I was so glad, that with the help of his teacher, he heard my answer.
*In New York State, students must pass 5 Regents exams in order to graduate from high school.
Photo credit: Julie Nariman