Cancelled Regents Exams Present an Opportunity to Refocus on Quality and Equity

Published by Robin Jacobowitz on

While many parents across New York State are home juggling their own remote work and making sure their kids are attending to their online instruction, there’s something those kids won’t have to do this spring: take Regents exams. These were cancelled by the NY State Education Department (SED) last week. 

This is a shocking development, particularly for those of us who grew up taking the exams ourselves. The Regents have been in place for over a century and a half; they are a New York institution, and a rite of passage. To cancel them is …unprecedented.

The Regents exams’ very long history in New York dates to 1865. There have been millions of test takers. Just about any New Yorker you can name likely took the Regents, from author James Patterson to Tracy Morgan to Sonia Sotomayor. And even as we acknowledge the vast inequities in education for far too many of those millions of test takers, the Regents exams were an early attempt by the state to create a standard of public education for every student who would call themselves a NYS high school graduate, from those who attended single-room school houses in the most rural corners of New York to those who sat in crowded, multistory academies in Manhattan. 

Currently, students have to pass Regents examinations in five subjects in order to graduate from high school. But in their original incarnation, Regent exams were administered to students at the end of their primary schooling. These were, essentially, high school entrance tests; a culminating hurdle that offered those who passed eligibility for admission into upper grade academies. According to state authorities at that time, these “preliminary Regents” resulted in increased rigor and thoroughness of instruction in the primary grades, and so they sought to introduce a similar exit exam at the end of high school to ensure that students were prepared for post-secondary pursuits. This latter form of Regent exams were first administered at the high school level in 1878. Exams covered algebra, American history, elementary Latin, natural philosophy (science), and physical geography.

Eventually, Regents exams came to be administered several times a year. By the 1920s they were offered in 68 different subjects, ranging from rhetoric to English composition, physiology to hygiene, Latin, zoology, Homer’s Iliad, foreign language, etc. By the middle of the 20th century, Regents exams had expanded to include practical and vocational fields, including commercial law, business writing, agricultural science, typewriting, vocational homemaking, and economics.

Throughout their evolution, the exams’ usefulness as a measure of high school attainment has been a constant source of debate. Further, state officials have long acknowledged that students in wealthier districts were advantaged, and those in poorer districts disadvantaged, when taking these exams. And even though the exams were not a diploma requirement, these inequities in outcomes remained a concern.

By the early 1980s, the Regents exams were the feature that differentiated two tiers of graduation for New York’s students. Higher performing students took Regents exams and earned a Regents diploma; “local” diplomas were given to those who passed basic Regents Competency Tests in reading, writing, and math. This two-tiered system brought into sharp relief the inequities of educational opportunities in NYS and was a factor — along with educational quality more generally — behind waves of education reform in the 1990s and 2000s. 

In the 1990s, NYS began a process to make the Regents exams and the Regents diploma required of all students, beginning with English and math and gradually expanding to include science and social studies. This was done to ensure that all students, regardless of the school district attended, achieved a standard of education. This effort aligned with the reauthorization of federal education legislation in 2002, the No Child Left Behind Act, which required exit testing only in English and math for high school students. And, of course, readers will be most familiar with the current regimen, which as noted, requires that all students pass five Regents exams, one each in math, science, English Language Arts, social studies, and one subject of their choosing. 

These latter movements elevated Regents exams (and exams given in grades 3 – 8, as we have written about previously) as the guarantor of greater educational quality and a tool for ensuring educational equity. 

Which brings us full circle to what we won’t have this year — to what we’ve lost. But also, perhaps, there’s something to be gained in this moment.  But only if we’re paying attention. 

In February 2019, the Board of Regents began a process of reviewing NYS graduation standards, including the Regents exams, with a plan to “reaffirm what it means to obtain a diploma in New York State and what that diploma should signify to ensure educational excellence and equity for all students.” Final recommendations are due by winter 2022. In this context, the cancellation of the exams this year presents opportunities. What alternatives will our innovative and resourceful teachers develop in this crisis to ensure that their students are learning? And what can we learn from this, accounting for the extreme circumstances of course, that we can use to inform the evaluation of what we want future standards for high school graduation to look like?

Testing cannot force equity in outcomes — especially in a system that does not have equity of inputs.

The BenCen has already studied many of the failures of testing in our state (e.g. lost instructional time, bad instruments, invalid and unreliable methods). In our research we have highlighted, among other challenges, the fact that testing cannot force equity in outcomes — especially in a system that does not have equity of inputs. Standardized exams have both intended and unintended consequences — and the latter is often a system that focuses on consequences for outcomes without systemic solutions to remedy the ways that inequity of inputs contributes to them. 

We don’t yet know what we’ll learn by not having Regents exams this year, but we should be open to the idea that there are likely better ways to ensure quality and fairness while gatekeeping students’ ability to graduate from high school. We have to be careful, of course, that the integrity of the NYS diploma is maintained. But maybe this unprecedented moment — the first time in 155 years that there won’t be Regents exams — enables us to see a different path toward both quality and equity. Let’s take advantage of this difficult moment to talk with our students and our teachers and look at the data to see who passes, who graduates, and where we might go — with both academic excellence and equity — from here.


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