Fifty-two seventh-graders in Malverne’s middle school walked across the street to the high school last month, found their seats in the gymnasium and sat for their first Regents exam — in Earth Science — along with ninth-graders and 10th-graders.
All of the seventh-graders passed.
It was only the second academic year that the Nassau County system has offered the Regents course in Earth Science to accelerated students at that grade level, and a sign of a trend: More younger students in Long Island schools are taking science and math courses that traditionally have been taught in high school.
“We don’t have to twist their arm to do it,” said Steven Gilhuley, the district’s assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction and educational services. “This is the cool thing to do.” That day, he said, 74 ninth- and 10th-graders took the exam; 84 percent of them passed.
Only in recent years have more middle schoolers begun to take Regents courses and corresponding exams, a required rite of passage for graduation in the state’s public schools that traces its origins to the 1870s.
Educators in many systems have been strengthening curriculum across all grade levels with the goal of preparing students for careers in science, technology, engineering and math, together known as STEM. The heightened emphasis also comes as New York prepares to roll out new science standards in the fall, the first statewide changes in 20 years.
The Malverne, Manhasset, Lawrence and William Floyd districts are among those introducing Regents curricula earlier, enabling students to more quickly fulfill the state’s sequence of required courses and move on to college-prep Advanced Placement classes and other electives.
Some, including Manhasset, now require eighth-graders to take a science Regents.
“Within our own school culture, we felt that it was appropriate, that our kids and teachers could do this,” said Charles Cardillo, the district’s longtime superintendent, who retired last week. Manhasset began requiring the Regents Living Environment biology course for eighth-graders in the 2015-16 school year.
“There’s that old adage that you raise the expectations and students tend to meet them. That whole notion was really what this was centered around,” said Charles Leone, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in Manhasset.
Younger testing up statewide
Statewide, the number of students taking a Regents exam in the seventh and eighth grades rose more than 12 percent from the 2011-12 school year through 2015-16 — from 106,302 to 119,152 students, according to state Education Department data. On Long Island, the number increased 8.48 percent during the same time period, from 28,196 to 30,586 students.
Much of the shift has come from seventh- and eighth-graders taking the Living Environment Regents. The test-takers for those two grade levels rose 71.5 percent statewide and 40 percent on Long Island during that time span.
“Because of the way we teach science in New York State with the four subjects — bio, chemistry, Earth Science and physics — that’s a four-year high school career,” said Thomas Elkins, the Manhasset district coordinator for science, health and technology. “They’d never have any flexibility in the options.”
In Manhasset, a perennial powerhouse in nationwide science competitions, officials described the first two years of eighth-graders’ mandatory acceleration in Living Environment Regents as a success, with 97.1 percent of them posting a passing score of at least 65 in 2016 and 98.4 percent doing so this year.
In Malverne, that figure was between 91 percent and 97 percent over the past four years, and in William Floyd, between 75 percent and 77 percent over the past three years.
Officials in the William Floyd school district spoke of one goal aiding another — giving students the opportunity to notch Regents credits before entering ninth grade also has the potential for raising the high school’s graduation rate.
Donna Watkins, the system’s director of secondary education and science, technology, engineering and mathematics, said, “If we increase the rigor for all students, then students will remain in math and science courses, which we know are the gateway to STEM professions. Districts that arbitrarily limit access to math and science are doing the students a disservice.”
Some districts wary of stress
Not all educators agree with a mandate that younger students take Regents curricula.
In Jericho and many other districts on the Island, accelerated students can take a Regents course in middle school — but the choice is theirs.
“I’m concerned about requiring everybody to do that in eighth grade,” said Joan Rosenberg, principal of Jericho High School. “With the stress levels that our students have, they’re not mature enough and not ready enough for that. Putting in an edict or a policy or a practice that increases that is kind of counterproductive to what we’re trying to do.”
Miriam Rafailovich, a Stony Brook University professor and a co-director of the Garcia Research Scholar Program, where she has mentored science research students in secondary schools, said she worries that if students “take an exam like this before they are ready to take it — not just in knowledge, but maturity — it gives them a bad self-image at a critical stage in their development.”
Administrators in districts where younger students are undertaking Regents courses said they spent months designing the curricula for middle schoolers and adjusted it throughout the school year.
In Manhasset, educators worked to identify struggling students and offered them tutors and extra review sessions. In Malverne, seventh-graders who took the Earth Science course only did so with teacher recommendations and after educators met individually with parents.
“In a world where there’s greater stress, we’re constantly looking to see: Are we contributing to the stress?” Cardillo said.
Margaret Delligatti, a Malverne parent, said she at first was “cautious” about enrolling her son, Gerardo, 14, in the seventh-grade Earth Science class. He succeeded and scored in the 90s on the Regents exam — besting by several points his sister, a ninth-grader who took the test at the same time he did.
Delligatti said she is “so happy” that she gave her son permission to take the course. “It was just fantastic for him and boosted his confidence,” she said. He is set to enter high school in the fall, having taken four Regents courses and passing all the corresponding exams.
In the Lawrence school district, educators have flipped the traditional Regents sequence by offering physics to accelerated ninth-graders. The district looked to a nationwide initiative called “Physics First.”
Advanced students can take Regents biology in eighth grade, physics in ninth grade and chemistry in 10th grade.
Rebecca Isseroff, a chemistry teacher at Lawrence High School, said there are advantages to offering a tougher science course for younger students, noting that later grades bring more academic and social pressures.
“Usually, physics is left for the senior year. They have senioritis and are busy with college applications,” Isseroff said. “I think the younger you present the sciences to these students, the more earnest they are and the more motivated they will be to succeed.”
Kindergartners’ new tech
The youngest students are in the mix, too.
Elementary school administrators are tweaking their curricula and investing in technology to promote enriching scientific experiences. Some are buying “Makerspaces” — miniature labs in which students can simulate coding and conduct experiments.
In Syosset over the past year, kindergartners have begun working with miniature robots, creating a track for the mechanisms to move. In the Plainview-Old Bethpage school district, elementary school students experimented with zSpace tablets, which incorporate 3-D technology.
“Often, as adults, we doubt the kids are capable of certain things, and when we afford them the opportunity, they can do a lot,” said Sean Dowling, elementary STEM teacher at Minnesauke Elementary School in East Setauket.
With the new technology, “kids are tinkering, kids are failing, and they’re recovering and they’re tweaking,” said Ed Kemnitzer, an administrator in the Massapequa school district. “We’re realizing that skills that we have seen at the secondary level traditionally are now necessary at the elementary level.”
In East Islip, the district added four Makerspaces last year and, beginning this fall, will have a co-teacher assigned to work with elementary classroom teachers on science, technology, engineering, art and math curricula, known as STEAM.
“We’re preparing students for jobs that don’t exist yet,” said Hillary Bromberg, principal of Ruth C. Kinney Elementary School.
In the Three Village school district, educators have worked to bridge the gap between the coding that is practiced in elementary school and the science courses taught in high school.
“We’re on our way to a K-12 computer science education,” said Michael Smit, who teaches AP Computer Science at Ward Melville High School and computer science at R.C. Murphy Junior High School.
This school year, the district offered two new programming courses at the junior high school, including classes that incorporated the programming languages Scratch and Python.
Demand was so strong that “kids can’t get in that want in,” Smit said. “The bell rings and they’re still working.”