The Regents exam

Michael Winerip in Monday’s New York Times:

Despite Focus on Data, Standards for Diploma May Still Lack Rigor

The next time people try to tell you how much the data-driven education reform programs of President George W. Bush (No Child Left Behind) and President Obama (Race to the Top) have raised academic standards in America, suggest that they take a look at the Jan. 24, 2012, New York State English Regents exam.

The test:

… The three-hour English test includes 25 multiple choice questions [testing reading comprehension]; one essay; and two short responses that are each supposed to be a paragraph long. A short response is scored 0 to 2 points. A student who gets 1’s on both responses has a pretty good shot at scoring 65 and passing the exam. [Officials are considering raising the passing English score to 75.]

The background:

… Until recently there were two main graduation options in New York. Students could earn a Regents-endorsed diploma by passing several state exams, or they could earn a local diploma. But the two-tier system has been phased out. No longer will there be a local diploma option.

New York’s last three education commissioners, all leaders in the reform movement, have been suspicious of assessment instruments that rely too heavily on people who work in schools.

But what to do instead?

State officials have instead chosen to use one English test to assess every high school student in the state, which has caused another fairly gigantic problem: How do you create a single graduation exam for 200,000 seniors when some are heading to the Ivy League and others to pump gas?

We’ll have to take “pump gas” figuratively. There aren’t many jobs for people pumping gas these days.

If the standard is set too high, so many will fail — including children with special education needs and students for whom English is a second language — that there will be a public outcry.

But if the standard is set too low, the result is a diploma that has little meaning.

So far, officials have opted to dumb down the state tests.

Along the way, Winerip provides a series of dismaying extracts from student answers — for instance, these two sentences from an essay that would be scored as 3 out of a possible 6 and could serve as part of a passing exam (the scoring system is complex):

Even though their is no physical conflict withen each other. Their are jealousy problems between each other that each one wish could have.

As things stand, it doesn’t look like the exams are succeeding in improving students’ abilities to read and write. On the other hand, it’s not at all clear how to reach that goal. Meanwhile, everybody thrashes around.


6 Responses to “The Regents exam”

  1. Peter H. Salus Says:

    Gee whiz! I earned a NYS Regents diploma in 1956. I didn’t think it was a big deal. All my friends took the regents exams, too. I took exams in ’54, ’55 and ’56. But this was in the Dark Ages.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      As the article notes, until very recently, you could get a Regents diploma or a local diploma (and college-bound kids did the former). But now the Regents diploma is all there is; it’s a graduation requirement for everyone.

  2. codeman38 Says:

    “We’ll have to take ‘pump gas’ figuratively. There aren’t many jobs for people pumping gas these days.”

    A minor nitpick: In New Jersey, just across the border from NYC, self-service gas stations are illegal. In fact, it’s only one of two states where that’s the case, Oregon being the other.

  3. codeman38 Says:

    (Though, to be fair, the “pumping gas in New Jersey” interpretation is only reasonable for the parts of New York bordering that state, and admittedly rather unlikely for the rest of the state. But I digress.)

  4. John Roth Says:

    The problem is having a single one-size-fits-all exam. One possible solution is to have a progressive exam, administered quarterly from kindergarten through graduation, where the questions are progressive and start with where the student was at the last exam. Geniuses get the hard questions, not-quite-so-bright kids get easier questions. Automatically.

    It would be expensive. No question.

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