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Eye on the News

Marc Epstein
The Regents, Re-dunce
Another year, another hopelessly manipulated exam
31 July 2009

It’s time for my annual report on the pathetic condition of New York State’s once-vaunted Regents exams. Over the last few years, I’ve written several articles about the decline in quality of these tests. Whatever satisfaction I’ve derived from exposing how fraudulent they’ve become has been tempered by the fact that nothing has changed. The exams remain hopelessly manipulated, even as the New York Times touts the Board of Regents’ appointment of former Hunter College education dean David Steiner as its new education commissioner. The Times hopes that Steiner will lead “a review of teacher training and teacher certification across the state,” but makes no mention of the testing regime. If Steiner decided to take that on, he’ll face a task akin to cleaning up the Augean stables.

If the Regents exams were simply dumbed-down, we could attribute the erosion of standards to a general decline that seems to afflict many aspects of society. But that’s not the whole story. While sections of the three-part exam require no previous knowledge of the subject matter, the multiple-choice part of the exam does ask valid questions about subjects covered in the curriculum. The problem is that the substantive questions don’t carry the weight in the scoring that they should, while those that require no prior knowledge count disproportionately. Because of the way that the final grade for the test is determined, a student could get close to 30 out of 50 questions wrong on this year’s American History Regents and still have no trouble passing the exam!

The scoring for the exams involves a formula developed in Albany that varies from exam to exam and year to year, but with one constant: the most subjective parts of the exam receive the greatest weight in the scoring. These are the “document-based” questions and essays. This year, for example, a cartoon of John D. Rockefeller holding the White House in the palm of his hand prompts the question: “What is the cartoonist’s point of view concerning the relationship between government and industrialists such as Rockefeller?” Another question deals with a cartoon of Teddy Roosevelt hunting bears. He’s holding a submissive bear with the name “good trust” on a leash while stepping on the carcass of a dead bear with the name “bad trust.” The question: “What was President Roosevelt’s policy towards trusts?”

The Global History Regents isn’t much better. A reading excerpt about child-labor abuse in nineteenth-century England begins with a sentence that reads in part, “it has always been a general reflection, that the children were very great sufferers, and seemed sickly and unhealthy.” The question: “According to Dr. Agnew, what is one impact the Industrial Revolution had on children?” Any answer that contains “suffer,” “sick,” or “unhealthy” will earn points. Student answers to these questions are given higher point values than their multiple-choice answers in tabulating the final grade.

Regents questions are “field-tested” years in advance, in various school districts throughout the state. After these sample tests are graded, test developers know just what to expect, within a decimal point, from various student demographic samplings. If the multiple-choice part of the exam proves too difficult, based on the test samplings, then it’s easy to keep results up by giving more weight to the “holistically” scored essays and document-based questions. The Regents have gone beyond being simply curved; it would be more accurate to say that they are flat-out gamed.

Why are the Regents exams repeatedly constructed in this flawed manner? I’d suggest a motive: higher test scores and higher graduation rates. Testers may be more concerned with an end result—namely, passing rates on the exam—than with the quality of the exam itself. They may want diploma-bearing graduates, regardless of proficiency.

And remember that there is nothing wrong with “teaching to the test” when the examination reflects what should be taught in the curriculum. But when test-taking techniques become the emphasis of instruction in a rigged system, then education is meaningless.

Marc Epstein, a teacher at Jamaica High School, served as its dean of students for six years.

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