Thursday, July 24, 2008

Dumbing Down Tests Raise Grad Rates in NY

Dear Commissioner,

The NY Daily News article by Marc Epstein ( see forward) on July 23rd, hit the nail on the head concerning the NY State Regents Exams.

As a NYC High School Social Studies teacher, I can tell you there is consensus among my colleagues that the NYS Regents has been skewed through the scoring rubric to increase the passing percentage of students.This has resulted in the exam becoming a sham as a measurement of what students have learned in these subjects. This has been the case for the last five or more years.

I have noticed students passing the USHG Regents who hardly or never came to class. To make matters worse, the administration then asks teachers to reverse failing grades for these students.

In addition, I agree with Mr. Epstein's statement concerning the Document Based Essay that "students need no prior knowledge of American History to answer the questions successfully".

It has also been noticed that the Science, Math and English Regents have skewed scoring rubrics and that standards in content have decreased.

The standards of the Regents Exams must be increased in content and scoring rubric in order to regain respect for it as a measurement of student learning.

James Calantjis
718 458-4237

Ignorance is bliss on the state Regents history exam


Daily News Op-Ed

July 23, 2008

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, which was administered last month.

The test has three parts and a total of 75 points weighted and calculated to total 100%, 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 10 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 - by earning five out of the 10 essay points. 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. 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, which account for 15 points, are also instrumental to the essay section; 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 Dwight 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?"

This is more a test in reading comprehension - and a low-level one at that - than in history.

However, the Regents exam does perform a useful, albeit cynical, function: deceiving those who wish to be deceived. Education reform advocates seize every opportunity to celebrate higher standards and tout improved teacher and student performance on tests like these. But in the end, there is only one difficult question that the Regents exam seems to pose: What does a student have to do to fail?

Epstein, who teaches history at Jamaica High School in Queens, has been grading Regents exams for 13 years. A longer version of this essay will be posted at

No comments: