The big story in New York education circles is the further confirmation of what longtime critics have alleged: that the feel-good story of rising student test scores over the last several years is largely an illusion produced by dumbed-down tests. David Steiner, appointed State Education Commissioner last year, believes that the system has led to “systemic grade inflation.” Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch agreed and enlisted Harvard testing expert Daniel Koretz to evaluate the state exams. On July 19, a preliminary report, based on Koretz’s findings, revealed that the jump in state test-score results over the past four years was indeed too good to be true: improved test results, it turned out, didn’t mean that more students were adequately prepared for high school or college.
Unfortunately, the story of New York’s testing mess doesn’t end at the elementary-school level. The state’s once-vaunted Regents exams, given to high school students, have long since become a shell of their former selves. Success on them signifies little—certainly not the ability to excel in college. Teachers have been complaining about this problem for years.
Consider the contents of this year’s Regents exams. The Global History and Geography Regents require the students to answer a series of questions in essay form, after reading various handouts. As has become usual, no prior knowledge of history or geography was necessary. 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. Another handout depicts Old Man Winter in a cartoon holding up a Panzer tank with a sign pointing to Moscow with one hand. The question asks: “What role did ‘Old Man Winter’ play in the defense of Russia?”
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 wasn’t any better. The thematic essay in this test asked the student to write about the positive and negative effects of technology on the American society and economy. Naturally, cell phones and computers became the most prevalent answer to this softball question—itself a rehashed question from the old Regents Competency Test designed for special-needs students or those who couldn’t pass the Regents before they were completely dumbed down. New York eliminated the RCTs for all but a handful of special-ed students, but now the state’s regular Regents exams include RCT-level questions. At Jamaica High, a failing school by Department of Education metrics, we had an 88 percent pass rate on this exam.
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.
As bad as the questions are, the scoring scheme is even worse. As in years past, the weighting of the exams makes it possible for students to pass by answering only one of two essay questions if they do well enough on the multiple-choice section and answer the document-based questions. And with the ingenious marking tables the state has devised, students can get as many as 15 multiple-choice questions wrong out of 50 and still pull off a 90 on the exam. Students with 40 correct answers can score as high as a 97.
Simply put, the Regents exams have been bent completely out of shape. The correlation between increased passing rates and the increasingly content-free nature of the exams is hard to miss. Chancellor Tisch and Commissioner Steiner have their work cut out to reform New York’s broken testing system—from the elementary grades through high school. If they succeed, we could see an end to massive grade inflation and the return of that dirty little word—merit—to the learning and testing process.