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NYS high school exams – testing done wrong

February 19, 2009 pm28 9:59 pm
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I don’t like the national trend towards high stakes exams. I don’t like graduation requirement exams. I don’t even like SATs. I don’t like the gross over-testing of our young kids, grade school kids, even kindergartners.

But even if I liked these things, I’d hate New York State’s high school testing program. They just get it wrong.

Exit exams? Course exams? NYS Regents exams are both and neither. It doesn’t work.

New York State’s high school exams are called Regents Exams. They were first offered in 1865. I can’t make out the language, but they sound like entrance exams for university or normal school in a particular subject area:

At the close of each academic term, a public examination shall be held of all scholars presumed to have completed preliminary studies. . . .To each scholar who sustains such examination, a certificate shall entitle the person holding it to admission into the academic class in any academy subject to the visitation of the Regents, without further examination.

Somewhere along the way, through twists and turns, and the slow phase-out of vocational titles, these exams became the standard for receiving an academic (as opposed to general(?), commercial(?), business(?), vocational(?)) diploma.

And by the time I began teaching in New York, there were two variations of academic (called Regents) diplomas: Regents, and Advanced Regents. The Advanced Regents had evolved from some sort of Regents with specialization into Regents plus more advanced exams in math and science, plus a language.

So Regents Diplomas were being handed out based on credits (like everyone else) plus passing 5 (or 9) course-associated examinations. (except English, which was not really course-associated). And regular diplomas, called “local diplomas” had credit requirements only.

In 1981 a testing requirement had been added for local diplomas as well: Regents Competency Tests (RCTs). RCTs were exit exams, and not necessarily associated with the content of any one course. Again, by the time I arrived, they were giving RCTs in math, science, English, US History, and Global History.

RCTs were much easier than Regents. And it seemed that city kids, poorer kids, and Black and Hispanic kids were disproportionately taking RCTs and earning local diplomas. In some cases schools were giving up on the Regents option early, and steering those kids to local diplomas from the beginning. And the State and the new commissioner, Mills, reacted. (I think it was Mills, not his predecessor). They would phase out RCTs for all but a few kids in special education. They would require 5 passing Regents from all students. And they would revamp the exams at the same time.

Now, once upon a time New York State Regents exams were high quality. “The Gold Standard” for state exams an old-timer once told me. But through the 1980s and 1990s this had become less true. And with Mills, the bottom fell out.

There is obviously a difference between a course-terminal exam and a commencement (graduation requirement) exam. This distinction was lost (especially in mathematics, where the State repeatedly told teachers that the new exams were exams, not courses. What should we teach? Whatever’s on the test! Presto, new courses!) The State moved, to the extent they could, from content-based to performance-based exams. It works, kind of sort of, in English and Social Studies. Not so good in Math and Science. The State made sure there were no tests out of 100, so that the public would not have an independent way to assess what was going on. All scores were now scaled, and the scales were relatively soft.

One should ask how New York State made the transition from local diplomas and Regents diplomas to only Regents diplomas without causing a sharp drop in the graduation rate. They allowed 55 as a passing grade for a transistion period, they reworked the exams to include less content knowledge, they screwed with the scales to make them easier to pass. And with all of that, something else happened.

RCTs had been exit exams. Regents had been course exams. New Regents were both, that is to say, neither.

New York State now writes exams, and does not know what they are for. Exit exams? Then where is the decision, the document, the description of the minimum of what a child should know in that subject area upon completion of high school? Does not exist. Course terminal exams? But now half of them are unhinged from courses. And quite clearly the old model: passing Regents in Course X = Mastery of Course X is no longer true.

There are two sharply diverging scales: those for the 5 exams required to graduate, and those for the others, the extras.

Teachers teach to tests that make no sense. The kids at the bottom get cheated – no one has decided what the real minimum knowledge/skill needed to graduate is, and instead they master NYS Regents question-types and material. The kids at the top get cheated – they don’t get exams aligned with rigorous courses that actually prepare them better for post-secondary education, and they don’t get exit exams full of knowledge that they routinely pick up along the way, and deserve no attention. Instead they get bizarre, broad exams that divert the kids from preparing for the next steps in their education.

NYS won’t do it. They distribute responsibility to deny anyone is in charge. But they should. They should decide if they want a program of course exams, or of exit exams, decide the minimum content to be considered passing for each exam, decided what needs to be demonstrated to show mastery for each exam, and then write those exams.

Actually, they should dump the high stakes exams altogether. One, because these high stakes exams are not necessary. And two, because it is fairly obvious that New York State no longer has the capacity to produce high quality secondary level examinations.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. February 20, 2009 am28 2:49 am 2:49 am

    The RCTs were actually much more difficult that todays regents exam is, especially in math. I remember it being a big deal when I got kids to pass it. Now there is no thrill at seeing these same kids get a 65 on the math A or integrated regents.

    The regents exams are designed to make people like Richard Mills look good, look like he is doing something to raise standards.

  2. February 20, 2009 am28 4:54 am 4:54 am

    Wow – I can’t say as I grasp all the implications. My experience with standardized tests has been provincial in perhaps more than one sense. Can’t imagine the frustrations in not having well-defined minimum requirements, though, and predictability in exam content. Well ranted.

  3. February 20, 2009 pm28 5:59 pm 5:59 pm


    the skills were different. Actually, the RCT tested skills, and today’s regents… hmm. But remember, the RCT was being administered to an overall mathematically weaker pool of students.

  4. Michael permalink
    March 9, 2009 am31 1:05 am 1:05 am

    You can’t make out the language?Its English,or rather American English.Perhaps if you had been required to read something other than Maya Angelou you might have puzzled it out.

    • March 9, 2009 am31 1:29 am 1:29 am

      Please reread the entire sentence before you embarrass yourself further.


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