A year ago, I wrote about the dumbing down of New York State’s Regents exams, the five tests in core subjects that students must pass to get a regular high school diploma. Since then, little has changed—unless it’s that the exams have become even dumber. Look no further than this year’s United States History and Government exam for 11th-graders.
The test has three parts and a total of 75 points weighted and calculated to total 100 percent, in a Byzantine formula established in Albany. Fifty multiple-choice questions, along with 15 document-based questions, account for 65 of those points. The student’s raw score is then plotted on a conversion chart provided by the state in combination with the student’s score on two essays, which account for the total score’s remaining ten points. If a student receives as few as 36 points out of 65 in the first two parts of the exam, he can still pass the Regents by earning five out of the ten essay points. According to the point-conversion chart, if he scores 50 points in the first two parts, he doesn’t even have to answer an essay question to pass—because his overall grade is already a 65, the minimum passing grade. If you’re confused by this elaborate scoring system, you’re not alone. But the key point is that students who get fewer than half of the questions correct can pass. And this leniency applies to other Regents tests as well. Students taking the algebra exam, for instance, need only earn a “raw score” of 30—out of a possible 87 points—to pass.
Some might argue that the rigor of the examinations justifies this system of weighting scores. That’s laughable. Consider some of the questions on the history exam. The multiple-choice section features a political cartoon in which a Supreme Court justice points to a chart showing pictures of the three branches of government. The cartoon reads “U.S. Constitution” at the top and “checks and balances” at the bottom. The test question asks: “Which constitutional principle is the focus of the cartoon?” This is all too typical of the half-dozen graphs, maps, and cartoon questions in this section of the test.
The document-based questions account for another 15 points; information garnered from them is then incorporated into one of the essay questions. Students need no prior knowledge of American history to answer the questions successfully. For example, a picture of students outside Little Rock Central High School, where troops guard the schoolhouse doors, bears the caption: “A white student passes through an Arkansas National Guard line as Elizabeth Eckford is turned away on September 4, 1957.” A second photo of Elizabeth Eckford, a black student, reads, “a mob surrounds Elizabeth Eckford outside Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.” The question asks the student to describe what happened to Eckford when she tried to attend Central High School! Another photo depicts the eventual resolution of the Little Rock standoff, when the military enforced desegregation rulings at President Eisenhower’s command. The caption reads: “On September 25, 1957 federal troops escort the Little Rock Nine to their classes at Central High School.” The student is asked, “Based on this photograph, what was the job of the United States Army troops in Little Rock, Arkansas?”
The thematic essay requires students to discuss two people, other than presidents, who played significant roles that led to changes in the nation’s economy, government, or society. In case the students can’t come up with any names, a list is provided: Margaret Sanger, Bill Gates, Henry Ford, César Chávez, Martin Luther King, Jr., Frederick Douglass, Andrew Carnegie, Jacob Riis, and Upton Sinclair. If that’s not enough, the test even provides the nine people’s fields of endeavor.
An examination that neither requires a mastery of a body of knowledge nor demands the proper competence in reading and writing for its grade level measures nothing. However, it does perform a useful, albeit cynical, function: deceiving those who wish to be deceived. While some government officials pursue the content of our foods with a vengeance—restaurants in New York City may no longer use trans fats, and many are also required to display the number of calories in their food—others seem to be busy manipulating the content of our kids’ exams in order to yield pleasing results. All the rhetoric calling for higher standards and improved teacher and student performance turns out to be nothing more than bluster. In the end, there is only one difficult question that the Regents exam poses: What does a student have to do to fail?