Before Mayor Bloomberg starts shelling out money to high school juniors for passing their New York State Regents exams, he would do well to bring as much scrutiny to the content of these tests as he does to the quantity of trans fats in restaurant food. People who took their Regents exams 30 years ago assume that the current version of the tests is essentially the same. They would be stunned to learn how dumbed-down the tests have become. You might say that the American history Regents gives new meaning to the term E-Z Pass.
The test has three components: 50 multiple-choice questions on American history; 15 questions pertaining to eight historical documents; and two essays, one of which requires the student to make use of the documents, and the other a general thematic essay. The multiple-choice questions cover a range of topics, from the writing of the Constitution through the cold war. They are, by and large, fair and representative.
But the 15 document-related questions are ludicrously easy. The documents include some written passages, but are mostly political cartoons and photographs. Several concern the womens suffrage movement, such as a photograph of a suffragists parade showing women carrying various signs containing the word suffrage. The exam question asks, What was a goal of the women shown in these photographs? Another photo shows a White House picketer with a banner reading, Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty? The exam asks the student to state one method being used by women to achieve their goal. A third document is a reproduction of a Massachusetts Womens Suffrage Association poster listing Twelve Reasons Why Women Should Vote. All of the reasons on the poster begin with the word because: Because laws affect women as much as men, for example. The Regents question reads: What were two arguments suffragists used in this 1915 flier in support of their goal? To get full credit, all the student has to do is copy two of the reasons from the poster! Other photographs show 1960s civil rights sit-ins. One question: Identify one method used by these civil rights activists to achieve their goals. Another question asks the student to name one goal of the activists. And so on.
The essay portions of the test are hardly more demanding. Focusing yet again on the civil rights and womens suffrage movements, the exam instructs the student to incorporate information from at least five documents in his response. But all the student really has to do to get full credit is repeat the content of the documents. The 15 questions provide the basis for the essay, assuming the student got them rightand as we have seen, it is almost impossible to get them wrong. Someone who has no prior knowledge of the topics would have no trouble receiving a perfect score.
The same is true of the thematic essay. It asks students to identify two changes in American life that resulted from industrial growth in the nineteenth century and to discuss one positive or negative effect. But just in case the student cant remember any examples, the exam provides them. The test suggests increased immigration, new inventions or technologies, growth of labor unions, growth of monopolies, growth of reform movements, and increased urbanization. Again, the test effectively supplies the answer.
Once teachers have marked the exams, they use a chart created by the state to convert the raw score into a final grade. The extraordinary adjustment built into the chart makes it possible to get only 20 of the 50 multiple-choice questions right and pass the Regents. Its also possible to complete only one of the two essays and pass. The examiners have created a fail-proof test that measures nothing beyond basic reading and writing competence. It wouldnt be difficult to train a sixth-grade class that can read and write at grade level to pass the test.
So before we allow Bloomberg and Richard Mills, the states commissioner of education, to pop the champagne corks over improved test results and higher standards, lets examine the content of the product. Politicians and the public are forever demanding truth in packaging when it comes to food and other consumer products; why should they be deceived about the content of their childrens educations?
Marc Epstein, a teacher at Jamaica High School, served as its dean of students for six years. He has written extensively on school violence.