Now, fix the Regents exams

Now that New York has raised its definition of proficiency in exams for grades three through eight, it’s time to fix the high school Regents exams, writes Marc Epstein in City Journal. The Regents have been dumbed down, charges Epstein, a high school history teacher in New York City.

The Global History and Geography Regents requires no knowledge or geography, he writes.

One handout shows a man sitting in a pedicab while the driver tries to walk the bicycle pulling the passenger through about three or four feet of water. The question asks: “What was one problem that people in the Varanasi region of India faced once the 1983 summer monsoons arrived, based on this National Geographic photograph and its caption?” If you couldn’t figure it out just by looking at the picture, the caption informs you that there was flooding and sewage, along with floating animal carcasses.

. . . A second part of the test, known as the thematic essay, asks the student to write about change and ideas, selecting two famous people—from a list including Nelson Mandela, Karl Marx, Galileo, and Mikhail Gorbachev—and explaining a specific idea the individuals developed, the historical circumstances surrounding its development, and how it influenced a group, a nation, or a region. After two years of global history, it’s safe to say that even your marginal students can find something to say about Marx and Communism or Mandela and apartheid.

The U.S. History and Government exam asked students to “write about the positive and negative effects of technology on the American society and economy,” a “rehashed question” from an old test designed for special-needs students or those who couldn’t pass the Regents exam, Epstein writes.

The document-based questions on the History exam were just as risible. A cartoon from the National Temperance Almanac depicts a saloonkeeper laying bricks around the entrance to his saloon—with the bricks labeled “wrecked lives,” ruined fortunes,” “lost virtue,” and “ruined characters.” The question then asks the student to state two effects that alcohol had on American society.

Students can pass by answering only one of two essay questions if they do well enough on the multiple-choice and document-based questions.

Proficient should mean college ready, backed up by automatic admission to a state  university, writes Core Knowledge’s Robert Pondiscio on Answer Sheet.

For low-income families with high aspirations but little educational experience, all they know is what the state and public schools tell them. And they’ve been misled. Seeing their children through the K-12 pipeline with a clear picture of readiness and a guaranteed college acceptance would likely be the difference between success and failure.

“’Proficiency’ on our exams has to mean something real,” (New York Education Commissioner David) Steiner wrote recently. “No good purpose is served when we say that a child is proficient when that child simply is not.”

Sol Stern writes about the history of New York’s testing mess in National Review.

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Comments

  1. SuperSub says:

    Part of the problem necessitating the grade inflation was the realignment of standards around 2001… the new standards became so conceptual that they were largely useless in guiding any real instruction with regards to specific knowledge or skills.

    Just look at the curve readjustment for the Regents math exams right after the standards changed. During the year schools were sent sample tests so that teachers and students would be familiar with the format. The grades were already curved right off the boot, but after the dismal performance by students the state increased the curve significantly to ensure a majority passed. Eventually over the succeeding years, the curve got so low that students needed less than half the raw credit to pass.

    Similar curves are found in just about every other NY state test in various forms.

    Its really not surprising that teachers began teaching to the test. Without any real guidance from the state standards, what tool were teachers (especially new ones) supposed to use to guide their instruction? The test.

    Arguably, if the test is made properly and is a good reflection of the intended curriculum, then by teaching to the test teachers are doing their job. Unfortunately, as Epstein noted, the state failed to provide rigorous tests and assessment. Tests continued to focus on a very narrow set of topics and the curve made certain parts of the test more important than others.

    On the NY Living Environment Regents (otherwse known as Biology), the state provides suggested answers to short answer and essay questions. For example, students might be asked a specific action that society could do to slow or stop global warming. The state-provided answer key would list a few answers such as “decrease fossil fuel use” or “use renewable energy,” preceded by the statement that “Answers include but are not limited to:” Teachers are left to discuss all the other answers that pop up. One common answer is “decrease air pollution,” which seems incorrect when you consider the test’s request for a specific answer and the specificity of the suggested answers. Lo and behold, after debate and calls to state ed for guidance, decreasing air pollution is acceptable even though there are many other forms of air pollution that have nothing to do with global warming. “Decrease pollution,” though, is ruled too general by the state. Where they draw the line, no one knows.

    I applaud the changes that are being made and hope they are but the first step to restoring the integrity of the NY Regents tests and diploma.

  2. Richard Nieporent says:

    One handout shows a man sitting in a pedicab while the driver tries to walk the bicycle pulling the passenger through about three or four feet of water. The question asks: “What was one problem that people in the Varanasi region of India faced once the 1983 summer monsoons arrived, based on this National Geographic photograph and its caption?” If you couldn’t figure it out just by looking at the picture, the caption informs you that there was flooding and sewage, along with floating animal carcasses.

    This question reminds me of the old Groucho Marx TV quiz show “You Bet Your Life”. He asked the following consolation question when the contestant got the quiz question wrong: “Who was buried in Grant’s Tomb?” The funny thing is that some of the contestant could not even get that question right.

  3. I recall taking the RCT for Global Studies in High School. My school was accredited by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, thus allowing us to bypass regents idiocy. NYS did require us to take the RCT during our Sophomore & Junior years, 3 weeks after our classes ended. I recall asking a teacher what I should study, and the answer was “don’t”.

    Much of this can also be traced to the decision a few years back to require a regents diploma for all students. Regents was supposed to be a step above basic – meaning not everyone is capable of it. Either they were going to have to accept a high failure rate or dumb down the standards.

    There’s no way they were going to accept a high failure rate. I recall the brouhaha over the Math A exam a few years back. Parents were screaming and the media was complaining about how difficult the test questions were. I was just starting out at the time, but managed to get a hold of a copy of the offending test. My first reaction was to wonder how anyone having difficulty with those questions was allowed out of kindergarten.

    It is generally the parents who are unreachable during the year, sending kids to school with cellphones, iPods, and designer sneakers but no pencils, who complain the loudest when faced with the hard reality of how little their kids have done. Perhaps now there can be enough light shed on the situation to cause people to actually examine the problems we are having.

    We often hear of urban schools doing extraordinary things. With very few exceptions, however, these are selective schools. Parents have to do something to send their kids there, which automatically eliminates the segment of the population which has the most difficulty. Without parental involvement at every level, nothing we do in the school can solve the problems we have.

    As they say, however, the first step in healing is diagnosis. This is a start. Maybe this time we can actually finish.

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