I have long been a staunch opponent of the Common Core high-stakes testing regime. Since teachers, schools, school districts, and states are evaluated based on student performance on math and reading tests, these tests have hijacked the public school curriculum in many states turning learning into perpetual test preparation.
Recently, some were surprised when on a radio broadcast on WSHU I opposed the New York State Department of Education and its Board of Regent’s proposal to reconsider and possibly eliminate requiring content area Regents exams for high school graduation. The state is currently organizing a series of regional meetings to gather feedback from “stakeholders.” Two of the questions they are asking speakers to address are “How do you measure learning and achievement to ensure they are indicators of high school completion?” and “What course requirements or examinations will ensure that students are prepared for college and careers or civic engagement?
Regents Chancellor Betsy Rosa announced that while “Regents exams have been the gold standard for over a century,” she wants to “rethink the high school diploma.” Her concern, one that I share, is “stubborn gaps in achievement– gaps that separate students of color, students with disabilities, English language learners, and low-income students from their peers who are white and attend school in low-need districts.” But eliminating Regents exams in high school will not end the systemic educational inequalities that disadvantage a number of students.
The first New York State Regents exams were given for 8th graders in 1865. High school examinations started 1878 when students tested in algebra, American history, elementary Latin, natural philosophy, and physical geography. The list of subjects has changed and grown, as well as the types of questions that are included, almost every year. On U.S. and Global history exams essay questions were revised to encourage students to address enduring issues across multiple time periods and to have a clearer understanding of cause and effect and similarities and differences.
Currently, students must pass five subject area exams, one each in math, science, English, and history plus one more to earn a Regents endorsed high school diploma. Students who pass more exams and have higher average schools can also earn an advanced Regents diploma and an Advanced Regents Diploma with Honors.
I agree with opponents of high-stakes testing that students, especially in the younger grades, are tested far too much. It creates stress, wastes learning time, and hijacks the curriculum. But I don’t oppose all tests.
As a high school teacher I actually liked having my students take the United States History and Government Regents at the end of a one-year course of study for a series of reasons. As a teacher, the exam established for me content, reading and writing standards that I wanted my students to achieve or exceed. Since it included map, cartoon, photo, chart, graph, and document analysis questions, these became incorporated into the way I taught lessons and assessed student understanding. The exam also gave me curriculum freedom. Social studies and history instruction, by its very nature, must take a case study approach. It is impossible to cover everything. As long as my students did well on the exam, and they always did, I was free to decide which questions and topics to focus on, the pace of instruction, and how to modify instruction to meet the academic needs of a range of student learners. Because I incorporated Regents style material into activity sheets and Regents type questions on unit tests, I did not have to do extensive Regents review at the end of the school year.
More recently, I have defended the content area Regents exams because the eternal focus on Common Core skills in schools has weakened instruction on things it is important for students to think about and understand, things like climate change, the spread of epidemic disease, the roots of inequality, racism, and imperialism in the modern world, how an economy works, and how active citizenship is necessary to protect and extend democracy.
In the last two decades New York State dropped 5th and 8th grade social studies exams, and as a result, social studies prior to high school has become an appendage to Common Core English test preparation. The state also stopped testing student knowledge of history prior to 1750 and no longer requires that they pass the post-1750 Global history exam to receive a regents endorsed diploma, making more time for Common Core English test preparation in classes that are still called social studies and history. Unfortunately, what is not tested is not being taught.
Opponents of the Regents exams raise legitimate points. They are concerned that students who work hard in school but do not pass these exams are denied a high school diploma. One solution is not to drop the test requirement for a Regents diploma, but to add different types of diplomas. Students in New York State who entered high school prior to September 2008 could earn a local diploma even without passing Regents scores. That option still exists for students with serious disabilities and should be reinstated for everyone. Another worthwhile option for graduation is a portfolio assessment diploma, which is already in place at a limited number of schools.
Assessment of student learning is not a negative. In Social Studies for Secondary Schools (Routledge, 2014: 365-366) I discussed how as a teacher I always tried to make assessment a part of learning, and to use a variety of assessment tools to discover what individual students understood. There are good reasons for testing and evaluating students. Students have a right to know how they are doing compared with other people doing similar work. This makes it possible for them to assess their activities, make decisions about their priorities, and evaluate their goals. In addition, as teachers, there are things we need to know so we can do our jobs more effectively. Assessing student learning helps us evaluate our teaching. Assessment helps us think about some important questions including these:
- Does the curriculum make sense to the students? Does it connect with who they are? Does it take into account their level of academic and social studies skills, and help to improve them?
- Am I teaching effectively? Is the class as a whole learning? Are the books and materials appropriate? What do I need to change?
- Do individual students understand what they are studying?
- How can I respond to their specific needs and motivate them to try again or try harder? How do I help students assess their own learning so they can use this knowledge as a way to expand their understanding? What will make it possible for every individual to succeed in class?
- Are students doing the classroom and homework assignments? Are the assignments reasonable and interesting? Which assignments should be kept? Which ones should be modified? Which ones should be dropped?
- Are my assessment tools accurate measures of what I am trying to assess? Am I testing recall, the ability of students to read and write, or their understanding and ability to use ideas?
- Can I assign students composite grades at the end of marking periods and semesters that have meaning to them and will encourage them, rather than just reward or punish them?
Assessment is not an easy task. It is the area of my teaching practice where I am frequently the least comfortable with my decisions and judgments. I find I am always sweating over grades and offering students other opportunities to demonstrate what they have learned and what I have taught. But that does not mean we should not assess student learning.
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