The Regent Exam “Gotcha”

Guest Blogger  Denis Ian


Any “test” that features any sort of “gotcha” question is not an assessment … because that’s a game show tactic … and this is no game show.

Of course, every test should have some opportunities for youngsters to exhibit their special knowledge. To narrow down the scope of questioning … because the test-makers were too, too lazy to formulate a new question … is fraudulent.

The goal of an exam is to provide students with an opportunity to display their mastery of a subject. The test makers should be as invisible as a competent referee in a sporting event. It seems to me that these tests make a real effort to swerve off main moments and events … and thereby demand that the more obscure be mastered as well as the most important. If this were a bar exam, I might concur. Bit it is not a bar exam … it’s an assessment for young learners … about 200 years old … who simply want to graduate high school and open the next chapter of their lives.

I will say this … while sometimes imperfect, the Regents exams were … for decades … accepted as suitable and appropriate assessments for high schoolers in this state. In fact, they even held a certain distinction among the states. No more.

This obligated move to align with Common Core has caused havoc throughout the Regents test program … not just in social studies but in math as well. And it will surface in all subjects soon enough because the pattern is now clear. Regents’ exams are no longer reliable gauges of student mastery. Instead they have become more similar to “trial by ordeal”. To succeed is to endure.

When you have cut scores that fluctuate wildly every year, that’s a certain indication that the tests are sloppy and even the makers distrust their ability to make an accurate instrument.

With cut scores that boggle the mind, teachers and student will rightly assume that every years’s passing rate is up to the whimsy of some unidentified fops in some unlabeled office in Albany.

I still maintain that the goal of all of these assessments is to confirm over and over and over again that the schools are dreadful failures and that Common Core is the antidote to the crisis. The reform itself has been under such sustained rebuke … and these tests scores represent easily manipulated justifications for a reform that is a magnificent failure.

These volatile scores will also serve as justification for teacher firings and for school take-overs by the state. Control is the long-term goal … but chaos will do very well for the moment.

The saddest part of this educational drama is that New York will again assume a posture of righteous arrogance … insisting that … for this or that reason … it will all heal itself and wonderfulness will fill the air for all of ever.

This state’s dysfunction is now a graduation requirement whether Albany wants to admit it or not.

Rather than being a steward of education in this state, Albany has become a saboteur of public education. They are involved in direct dismantling of a public school system for reasons way beyond educational performance. There are sinister forces in this state … and in this nation … that have hijacked education under the guise of reform … but in reality … it was all done for monetary and political gain.

It is a coup d’etat of stunning breadth and alarming incompetence. These exams are simply a public performance of their intent to mock this public education system into obscurity … and replace it with a system designed not for students … but for the self-serving.


High Standard (singular)

There is only one standard that must be met for ELA in New York State.  Close reading.  All educational endeavors in New York State in English Language Arts are governed by close reading.

That is it.  Close reading is the anchor standard, and the entire ELA curriculum in NYS is now driven by close reading because you can not pass the ELA Regents in New York State unless you are proficient in one standard.  Close reading.  The ELA Regents is wholly driven by close reading; not knowledge of grammar or punctuation, or verb tenses, not comprehension of the works studied over the years in school, or even a passing interest in literature.  Just close reading.

Designing the ELA regents to only focus on one standard, close reading, is sold as a high standard but is really a cost efficiency.   Students are no longer asked open ended questions about literature that they have read during their education, nor are they asked to write opinion pieces on topics of interest, or business letters to express a concern.  Students now are tested by having to read a set of texts, excerpts or documents, and provide an answer based on a specific and narrow constraint.   The end result, in the idealized world of those that are pushing “high standards” is that all students willwrite a standard response.

The current standard of having every student in NYS needing to write a uniform response in order to graduate and earn a high school diploma means that NYSED puts more value on being able to grade an essay with a computer then it does it fostering innovative, creative writers and thinkers.

The ACT recently published a report on a recent survey of what educators and business found to be important skills.

 “Finding 1: There is general agreement that students and employees should be able to write for a variety of purposes, audiences and context.”

So, students should be proficient at many writing styles, not just standard essays to pass one standardized test.

In the second finding, 47% of college professors stated that the most important writing skill is students should be generating sound ideas for writing.  New York State education  and common core standards puts the focus on teaching students to critically analyze source text so it is no surprise that 43% of high school teachers put the Common Core anchor standard as the most important skill.   College professors put the ability to use language conventions proficiently above critically analyzing text.  College professors put the least value on being able to clearly summarize other author’s ideas in writing , which makes sense.  College professors want students who can generate their own ideas.

The final finding relates to reading, and college professors want students who can determine the central meaning of a text, identify important details, draw conclusions and make inferences, evaluate evidence and/or support for an author’s claim and distinguish among fact, opinion and  reasoned judgement.

These are skills that are developed with reading, and discussion, building vocabulary and comprehension.  Close reading focuses on minute details, and on answering questions that direct a student to focus on a very specific section of text and determine the answers to a set of multiple choice questions.

The second part of High Standard (Singular)  will go through examples of past Common Core aligned ELA regents and illustrate how the close reading standard is used to narrow instruction and only emphasize  one skill.

Thank you to Peter Greene, who writes Curmudgucation, for this piece ,which introduced me to the ACT study.  And thank you for his tireless efforts on writing about issues in education every day.

Thank you to Nicholas Tampio, Associate Professor at Fordham University, for raising awareness of the problem with the anchor standard and why it needs to be changed in this op-ed piece.

Thank you to Susan Ryan Murphy, who has patiently asked all my ELA regents questions and who has been advocating for many changes to the ELA  regents exams.  This is her letter to NYSED and the Regents pushing for changes to the grading scheme.



Ltr to Regents on ELA Regents Exams – Necessary Changes

Letter to Regents by Susan Ryan Murphy

I want to applaud you for taking the time to consider the idea of easing graduation requirements for our seniors. This is an amazing shift and gives me hope that NY can overcome the problems encountered in recent years. I hope the new graduation requirements include a path for those whose main disability is reading comprehension. There are rumors that the English Regents will remain as a graduation requirement. Keeping the English Regents in place “as is” could pose problems for our students. Before this decision is finalized, I urge the Regents who have never seen the test or read the questions to take the time to read through the questions before any decisions are made. I teach English and am all in favor of literacy standards. But, this Regents is not testing what you think it is testing. First, there are 3 reading passages which assess reading comprehension. The reading level of these passages is often as high as grade 14. Questions focus on understanding metaphor and sarcasm, skills that are listed as disabilities on the IEPs of some of our SWDs. No matter how much remediation these students receive, they will never be able to answer these questions. (It’s like asking a student who is color blind to pick out the red and green M&Ms.) In order to have a chance at passing this exam, a student needs to answer 12-14 multiple choice questions correctly. Mathematically, that makes sense. But when you look at the test and the 24 multiple choice questions, there are never 12-14 questions that a student with a reading disability could answer. They all struggle with poetry (4-5 questions). In years when the poem has had a sarcastic tone (leveled at grade 14) my weaker readers have gotten every question wrong. The remaining 19 questions are also paired with at least one text grade 12-14. Questions focus not on general comprehension of the passage, but on understanding a specific vocabulary word in an isolated sentence. Often these words cannot be defined in context of the passage. Other questions ask students to make inferences or to unpack figurative language. Weak readers are not good at this. My college bound students will answer almost every question correctly in September on the pre-test and, of course, will do the same the day of the Regents. My struggling students will only get 3 or 4 questions correct on the pre-test. By June, they are able to answer 7-10 questions correctly … but that may not be good enough. Second, the writing portion of the exam relies on reading comprehension skills also. Students must read an additional 5 passages and write 2 essays based on those readings. The first set of criteria on the grading rubrics assess the sophistication of their understanding of the reading passage(s). Students with a reading disability will not score higher than a 2 on this criteria. It is a rare that a poor reader will write an essay with a wide range of sophisticated sentence structures, sophisticated vocabulary, or error free language. Yet,this is what the rest of the rubric assesses. So, a poor reader, by definition, will be a poor writer on this particular exam. The argument essay is graded with a raw score of 1-6. Raw scores of 4-5-6 are almost impossible for a weak reader. My students have shown tremendous growth this year as readers and writers. Yet, while their writing scores were at a 2 on the pre-test … now they are writing better 2’s. On a good day, they might score a 3 … or average out to a 2.5. My college bound students, however, have moved from a pre-test score of 2-3 to a post-test score of 5-6. The literary essay is graded with a raw score of 1-4. On the pre-test, most of my struggling students left a blank page instead of writing an essay. The passage was so difficult to read that they couldn’t follow the directions. (I have taught these children for the past 3 years … they knew enough to write the essay … but they couldn’t understand the reading passage in September.) They have learned reading and test taking strategies this year and are now writing essays that score a 2. When I add up all of their points on practice Regents exams, they are scoring between 40 and 60 points. It sounds like I’m a terrible teacher. Yet, most of these students refused to read and write when I had them as freshmen. Most do not have IEPs or 504 plans. They have worked hard and overcome so much. Upon graduation, they are planning to enter the work force, the military, or, possibly, a two-year college to further their BOCES vocational studies. This exam does not assess the literacy skills that they do have. If they were asked to write an essay about how to repair a transmission, to weld aluminum, to debone a chicken, or to remove a virus from a computer, they could each score a 6. But they aren’t very good at writing about how an author uses metaphors to create a central idea. Thank you for all that you are doing to help our students to graduate.