FAQ on Regents Tests

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The Regents tests administered by the New York State Education Department begin on June 11. The full schedule is here. SchoolBook interviewed Kim Nauer, the education project director at the Center for New York City Affairs and contributor to Inside Schools, on what parents need to know about the tests that determine if a student may graduate from high school.

Why does the state give the Regents tests? What is the goal?

We actually have one of the oldest exams systems in the country. It was always meant to be an exit exam so that we know that students have a certain amount of knowledge before leaving high school. And it's still that. In fact that role has become more important because with the focus on standardized testing the Regents are essentially the standardized tests for high school. They are a series of tests that gives the state confidence that we’re actually graduating students with a minimum level of knowledge to succeed in the world.

What are the minimum and maximum numbers of Regents a student can take?

In New York State there are five Regents exams you are required to take. You must score a 65 or over to pass. The exams include English, which kids typically take in their junior year, one mathematics exam, two social studies exams -- Global History/Geography and U.S. History and Government -- and then one science exam. Usually, kids take Earth Science or Living Environment. That’s typically what kids do in New York City and they graduate with what’s called a Regents Diploma. They can’t graduate without it. There are exceptions or accommodations for some special education students.

Is the Regents diploma the highest diploma a student can receive?

No. There is a more prestigious diploma. The Advanced Regents Diploma goes to students who got a 65 or higher on all the ones we talked about plus they did two more Regents in mathematics and one more exam in science and one in a foreign language Regents of their choosing. A lot of us in the field feel like the Advanced Regents is the one that truly means something in terms of college preparation. It’s a good thing to see many high school students graduating with Advanced Regents. It means their schools use college preparatory curriculum, the courses are there and the kids are passing them.

Can we see what a Regents exam looks like?

Yes. The nice thing about the Regents exams, as a parent and student, is you have a nice wealth of material you can work from in terms of preparing for it. The tests are a mix of multiple choice and essay questions.

Which is the hardest test?

The one people fail most often is Global History because, I think, it’s just a lot to memorize. In terms of those higher tests which college-bound kids take, they get harder and harder. Each step is somewhat more rigorous.

What if you fail a Regents?

It’s not a big deal. You’re allowed to keep taking them. This is something many many kids in New York City public schools deal with and is part of my expertise. I watch these kids’ test-taking patterns. So you can take it again and take it again until you get a score that you like. The two things that we’re emphasizing is, yes, you have to keep taking it until you reach 65. And the other important thing we're saying to all students is that 65 is not good enough anymore. You really want to get a 75 on your ELA and an 80 on your math Regents exams because that will exempt you from having to take remedial courses at CUNY.

If a middle school student takes a Regents test will they have to re-take it in high school?

No. If you complete Algebra, for example, there is a series of other mathematics Regents exams a student can take in high school.

How big a problem is cheating on the Regents?

I don't know exactly what the state and city have been doing lately. I know there is computer technology to spot cheating (erasure marks and suspicious patterns), so it is within the state's power to spot and reduce problems of teachers and administrators doctoring the tests. The state has also started to require that teachers do not mark their own students' tests, as they have in the past. And principals have told me that there are much stricter record-keeping, handling and delivery requirements, so that it would be easy to figure out who doctored a test, if this was discovered.

As for student cheating, there are rules restricting cell phones and other things in the test room. Parents should talk to their principal about the rules and procedures ahead of time.

Is there a push to change which Regents exams are required?

The Regents exams have been fairly stable in recent years but that’s going to change big time. The Common Core learning standards are being introduced to high school as we speak. And then the first set of Common Core-aligned Regents exams are going to start next June. So this June the kids are all going to take normal exams but by next June they’re going to be taking Common Core-aligned English and Algebra I exams, followed by the others shortly thereafter. We haven’t seen any samples yet of the aligned exams but they are supposed to start releasing samples imminently.

Are you foreseeing an end to the Regents exams?

It’s the big question that everybody asks. People are really waiting to see what the PARCC (the 22-state consortium working on shared education standards and tests) develops but they’ve been putting a lot of work into these tests and so I suspect, if I had to bet my house, we’ll adopt the PARCC assessments unless there’s some really overwhelming reason not to. That said, when I look at some of the sample questions for the 10-grade English exam they are so far and away more rigorous than what we have today that it makes me wonder if it would be wise. That is sort of down the road but the big next story is what are the next high school assessments going to look like?