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.