Flaws Could Spell Trouble For N.Y. Regents Exams

By David J. Hoff — November 05, 2003 7 min read
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The flaws that were recently exposed in New York state’s high school exit exam may be generating a big enough backlash against the program to give its critics the ammunition they need to lessen the stakes on the tests.

“Everybody wants appropriately high standards,” said state Assemblyman Steven Sanders, the chairman of the education committee in the legislature’s lower house, “but what we’re hearing is it is ultimately unfair and ultimately arbitrary ... having every student in the state having their abilities defined by one particular exam on one particular day.”

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Read the accompanying table, “Test Preparation.”

Mr. Sanders recently completely three days of legislative hearings, at which he said educators and other members of the public expressed “overwhelming agreement” that the Regents tests had become too powerful in determining the futures of students.

While the lawmaker said he doubts the fairness of requiring students to pass five Regents exams to earn their high school diplomas, educators said that the state has taken several steps in the past month to assuage the many complaints, such as postponing the date it will demand higher test scores for graduation and hiring the staff needed to ensure the tests are valid and fair.

At least one former critic is convinced that state education leaders are going to do what’s necessary to fix the testing problems.

“I see nothing but complete cooperation [from state leaders] in trying to work this through,” said William J. Brosnan, the superintendent of a Long Island school district who was the chairman of a panel that reviewed the problems leading to the state’s invalidation of the “Math A” Regents exam given in June. “This is going to result in a very strong math program.”

State officials also are saying that they’ve made the midcourse corrections necessary to sustain the program and ensure that their tests are an accurate gauge of student achievement, despite the defects in last spring’s math test and other exams.

“We have a solid process,” asserted James A. Kadamus, the deputy commissioner of elementary, middle, and secondary education. “We’ve had some issues with some of the tests that we’re rapidly repairing.”

‘A Cushion’

Last month, the board of regents, which sets policy for New York’s precollegiate and higher education systems, decided to wait three extra years before raising the score required to pass the Regents exams.

Before the Oct. 8 decision, the class of 2005 would have needed a score of 65 on a scale of 100; now, the class of 2008 will be required to score that high. In the meantime, the passing rate will stay at 55, where it has been since the board started phasing in the exams as a high school graduation requirement. (“Forecasting Failures, N.Y. Delays Raising Exam Threshold,” Oct. 15, 2003.)

New York students must pass exams in English, mathematics, world history, American history, and one science subject. They can take the tests at any time in their school careers; some pass one or more of the tests as early as freshman year.

Before 1998, the Regents exams were divided into two categories: a minimum-competency test all students needed to pass, and a more difficult test taken by high-achieving students. Those who passed enough of the higher-level Regents exams were given special diplomas signifying their achievement.

Mr. Sanders said the recent mishaps with the Regents exams had confirmed his belief that students’ entire precollegiate careers should not hinge on passing exams in five subjects. The New York City Democrat suggests that scores on the Regents test should be but one factor among many that local school officials use to decide whether a student should graduate.

“Even if you have the perfect test [that is] perfectly aligned with what is taught, relying on that one test to define a student’s ability is ultimately arbitrary,” he contended.

But in testimony at the hearings before the joint panel of Assembly and Senate members, the state commissioner of education said that the high-stakes exams had spurred schools to improve their curricula, and had ensured that all schools in the state would be held to the same standard.

“The standards and tests,” Commissioner Richard P. Mills maintained, “caused schools to stop giving a weak curriculum to many children.”

Because the state gives students multiple tries to pass each of the tests to qualify for graduation, it’s fair to students who may struggle to pass them, Deputy Commissioner Kadamus added in an interview.

“There’s a cushion there,” he said. “Most kids who are proceeding through school can pass these tests.”

Staff, Expertise Wanting

Because the state offers each exam twice a year, and because it publishes the test questions immediately after they’re given, the state must write 70 tests every year, Mr. Kadamus said. That workload may have led to some of the problems fostering the current debate.

Shortly after high school students took the math exam in June, Mr. Mills announced that seniors who had failed it could graduate after all because early indications were that the test was harder than in previous years. Later, the panel reviewing problems with the test found that two-thirds of students had flunked it.

“The Math A Regents was only the most recent manifestation of the problems with high-stakes testing,” Mr. Sanders said. “It crystallized and synthesized in one easily understandable incident how vulnerable we are to one single test.”

But Mr. Brosnan, who led the state’s review of the math test’s problems, said that the state was doing everything it needed to do to prevent such issues from recurring.

The state uses an unusual process to craft 70 Regents tests annually. Teachers gather during the summer or other school holidays to write potential test questions.

After the questions are field-tested, other groups of teachers decide which ones should be part of the next exam. Then, another group of teachers conducts a final edit of the exam to ensure the questions are clear and accurate. (See accompanying box, “Test Preparation.”) After reviewing the June math test, Mr. Brosnan’s panel found that the process the state uses is technically valid, but that the state didn’t have enough staff members or expertise to do it correctly.

The math test administered in June was harder than previous versions because its field tests didn’t include enough students, the panel found. Just as with an opinion poll that doesn’t question a large and representative sample of a population, the results of the math exam’s field testing didn’t deliver a fair gauge of whether the assessment was of the same difficulty as previous exams.

The problem occurred, said Mr. Brosnan, in part because not enough local school administrators had volunteered to have their students participate in the field testing, and the state education department didn’t have enough personnel or procedures to identify the difficulties.

Mr. Kadamus said that the state was adding staff members to its testing division to handle the workload. It’s also adding new layers of analysis to ensure that test scores accurately reflect student performance. The changes mean that students will have to wait a week to receive their results, instead of getting them the next day, as in the past.

Future Action?

The education department’s steps will solve the technical problems, Mr. Brosnan said, but the department still must convince educators that the psychometric methods are valid and can be trusted.

“One of the main issues we’re facing is that the design of the tests is still a mystery to educators,” said Mr. Brosnan, who is the superintendent of the 6,300-student Northport- East Northport district. “People are saying, ‘Where are these tests coming from?’ Unless you take the time to explain [the test-development process], it defies common sense.”

With the recent changes, state officials are confident that they’ve shored up the support of educators. By postponing the date when the passing score rises to 65, schools will get the chance to improve their curricula and other services to help students in the bubble between scoring a 55 and a 65, Mr. Kadamus said.

But many legislators still question whether the state should require students to pass the Regents exam before graduation, Mr. Sanders said.

State lawmakers have historically given the regents board broad powers to set policy, he said, but they may be tempted to intervene if a majority doesn’t like the current exam policies.

“Clearly, the legislature has the ability to exercise some overall power in regard to testing,” he said. “Will that happen? I don’t know.”


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