New York's Love Affair with Standardized Testing (as long as you call them Regents)

The Canandaigua Daily Messenger (an upstate paper in the lovely Finger Lakes region of New York State) reports today that “New York is the state with the largest number of students opting out of Common Core exams in the nation — with local districts seeing significant opt-out rates.”

That’s true. While New Jersey’s anti-testing fever appears to have moderated, New York is still aflush with rebellion against assessments that measure student proficiency in this-century standards, despite -- or maybe because of -- spine-crumpled Gov. Cuomo and new Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa who told the Wall Street Journal that if she had school-age kids (she doesn’t) she would opt them out.

But New York has its own opt-out wrinkle. While most states don’t require subject-specific assessments for high school graduation requirements, New York does. They’re called Regents exams, and have been in place in high schools for a long time, certainly well before I was a student in New York public schools.

Here’s how it works. In order to get a Regents diploma, as opposed to the downstream non-Regents diplomas, students must get a 65 or better in tests in math, science, language arts, global history and geography, and US history and Government.  In order to get a Regents diploma with Honors, you have to get a 90 or better. And if you want a Regents diploma with Advanced Designation and Honors, you have to pass 8 tests with a 90 or better. (There are alternative pathways to graduation for students with disabilities and  English Language Learners.)

Talk about high-stakes. Yet there is no opt-out-of-Regents movement, even in opt-out hotspots like Long Island.

Example: according to a spreadsheet produced by the New York State Allies for Education (NYSAE), the primary opt-out lobbying group in N.Y., this Spring 75% of high schoolers  at Bellmore-Merrick Central High School refused to take the new state standardized math tests. That’s one of the highest rates on Long Island.

But what about Regents exams? From a 2011 edition of the Long Island Herald, written before standardized testing became an object of disdain:
Richard Rozakis, the district’s assistant superintendent for instruction, then delved into graduation rates and test scores. Rozakis noted that 97 percent of Bellmore-Merrick’s class of 2011 will attend college this fall. Some 98 percent of the class earned Regents diplomas, which require that students pass five Regents exams, and 75 percent of students received the Advanced Regents diploma distinction, which requires that students pass at least eight Regents exams. 
This past year, Central students excelled on the foreign-language Regents. One hundred percent of students taking the French and Italian Regents passed the tests, and 95 percent of students taking the Spanish Regents passed. Rozakis noted, however, that the state will no longer offer Regents exams in foreign language, owing in large part, administrators said, to budget cuts. 
More than 95 percent of Central District students taking the algebra, Living Environment and U.S. history Regents passed the tests, as well. 
The percentage of students achieving “mastery level” on the Regents –– indicated by a score of 85 percent or better –– increased this year in the following subjects: English, algebra, geometry, French, Italian and Spanish. 
“These are all wonderful things,” Rozakis said.
Question: why are high-stakes Regents tests ‘wonderful” but state standardized tests, as NYSAE says, an “unproven reform”?

Answer: student outcomes on Regents tests aren't tied to  teacher evaluations. (State tests aren't either since Cuomo endured spine-removal surgery.) Regents tests, in fact, are widely-accepted as evidence of student proficiency.

Here's the irony: New Yorkers like testing their kids. Just don't sully the high-stakes experience with phrases like Common Core, which suggests  evidence of reformy corporate privatization and the denigration of the teaching profession. Call them Regents and everyone is happy. There's so much in a name.