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Why Give Regents Exams?

May 29, 2022 am31 12:03 am

Set US Regents aside. Here’s a better question: Why give Regents at all?

The US History Regents – a New York State graduation requirement, was cancelled last week. It had to do with a problematic question. Here’s Chancellor Betty Rosa’s official explanation. As I explained, the explanation falls way short.

But why any Regents. This could just be a question about your attitude to tests. I don’t like tests. That guy there likes them. We disagree. And I don’t like them, in general. But that’s a facile response. Let’s ask a real question.

Why give a test? Why take a test? 

Each test we give, or we take, there is some reason. 

We take driving tests so we can have a license. We take the SATs (or we used to) so we can submit scores to colleges, who consider them (or used to). We take AP exams (or we used to) to earn college credit (not it appears that most students take them without hope of earning credit, but in order to impress colleges that they took a hard course).

Teachers give quizzes to watch for progress on specific skills. We give unit tests to assess mastery of a unit of study. (Don’t get me started on pre-tests. No teacher who is not brain-washed would ever voluntarily waste children’s time and cause such angst if it were up to us). And we give final exams to measure cumulative knowledge of a course of study.

Students do not say “I’d rather not learn today. Can we have a test?” And teachers do not easily give up class time for teaching and learning. Teachers generally have a specific goal in mind when we give tests (did they learn the difference of perfect squares) or objective (have they gotten more familiar with regents-type questions). No teacher I have ever met has said “I don’t feel like teaching today. Let me give a test” or “reason? no reason. I just felt like giving it to them.”

But this “why are you giving this test?” question, the Regents fails that test.

It was different before. Regents exams were required for a subset of New York State students who were earning an academic diploma – many students were earning other types of diplomas – mostly “local.” The Regents exams were course completion exams – a way of norming the more academic courses across the state. The Regents measured your cumulative knowledge of a coherent course of study.

Regents for all? – gonna need new tests

When New York State made Regents Diplomas the only option for the vast majority of New York State students – that changed. Pouring students who a few years earlier would not have been looking for Regents diplomas into Regents track changed the world. Either many of those students would have great difficulty succeeding, or the tests would have to become easier to pass. Which would mean that the tests would need to change.

New York State claimed they were changing how teachers taught – but in the spirit of “watch what they do, not what they say” – they made the claim while they were replacing the old tests with new tests that more students would pass. 

New York State rapidly moved to standards-based testing – and wherever you stand on standards-based testing – that doesn’t matter for this conversation. New York State went to standards-based testing because it reduced the content knowledge required to pass each test. 

The three math exams had already been going through a strange transformation, as algebra, geometry and trig were replaced with integrated courses: Course I, Course II, and Course III, none of which presented students with a full-year coherent course of study. Integrated math was almost two decades old when everyone was pushed to get Regents diplomas.

The two “advanced” math exams and the advanced science exams (chemistry and physics) changed the least. These (esp physics and chem) are still somewhat culminating exams from a full year coherent course of study – and they may play something like the role that Regents used to play in general.

Commencement Level

But five exams are now “commencement level” exams – that is, graduation requirements: Algebra, one Science (usually Earth Science or Living Environment), Global History, US History, and English. 

These are gate-keepers – they measure whether or not the student should be granted a high school diploma. But wait, isn’t each exam tied to a course? So each exam measures learning from a coherent full year (or 2-year, in the case of Global) course of study. But no – Algebra is no longer a coherent course. And English is not tied to a course. So these measure readiness to graduate?

Let’s think, for a moment, the math we would expect a high school graduate to be able to do. Almost none of it is on the Algebra Regents. So – “commencement level” – nah, just doesn’t make sense. And it is not anchored in a coherent course. The Algebra regents does not measure mastery of Algebra – So what is the exam? And if we do not know what it is – is it a commencement level measure of knowing enough math to function in society – nope – it is course end exam to measure mastery of algebra – nope – So if we do not know what it is, why give it?

That’s the easiest. But there is no evidence that ANY of these five exams measure what we should expect of a high school graduate. Nor do any (except perhaps Living Environment) measure mastery of the material from a coherent course. 

Why give Regents?

If we do not know what we are trying to measure, then why give the test?

If we want “commencement level” exams, then let’s decide what students should know, as a minimum, when they graduate – and build assessments – tests if they have to be – that measure those skills and that knowledge. If we want course mastery exams, then let’s replace what New York State currently mandates with coherent courses.

My first guess? Right where we started – I don’t think New York State should be in the business of making and administering these exams. They are lousy at it. And they cannot answer “why do we give these?”

If we give them, and they measure readiness to graduate…

By my second take – if these are “commencement level” exams, then let’s treat them as if they measure whether a student is ready graduate – and grade them more appropriately:  Yes or No. Ready to graduate, or not ready. Take away all the stress over what the score is – it doesn’t matter anyhow.

Seriously. Colleges don’t use the grades (except some CUNYs or SUNYs, and only to avoid remedial placement, and they could figure that out with some other assessment). It would simplify grading (and end most disputes over single points). It would reduce test prep in some classrooms, and return hours of instruction (that teacher would rather be doing, and that students benefit more from). Win, win, win…

Get rid of the Regents. But if we can’t dump them, at least change them into Pass / Not Yet Passing.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Sam Noel permalink
    May 29, 2022 am31 6:10 am 6:10 am

    Makes perfect sense! That’s why it’s not likely to be implemented.

    • May 29, 2022 am31 7:29 am 7:29 am

      I don’t know that P/F has ever been given serious consideration – but since they are graduation exams (at least the core five are) wouldn’t that make sense? I mean some states give you a score on your driver’s exam, but no one cares about that score, just whether you passed.

  2. mike permalink
    May 31, 2022 am31 8:48 am 8:48 am

    I am trying to answer the question of what other states require regents or state exams for graduation? Can someone share? Thanks

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