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  • Jeremy Kotlyar

The Regents: Standardized Testing in the COVID-19 Era

The administration of the New York State Regents Exams has been a tradition in the secondary high schools of our state since the 19th century. Once consisting of examinations in 42 different subjects, they have been pared down to ten still in use today [1]. In the spring of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic forced New York’s Governor Cuomo, as well as many other governors nationwide, to order all schools to transition from in-person to full remote learning for the remainder of the 2020 academic year. The difficulty of online exam administration, especially in regards to academic integrity, caused the federal government to issue New York and all other states a waiver of state standardized testing requirements – including all Regents examinations – for the end of the 2020 academic year [2]. This federal action enabled the state of New York to cancel the June 2020 Regents exam administration, and permanently exempt all students from the Regents exams they were meant to be taking in 2020. The decision was met with relief from parents and students alike, already dealing with the stress of months of COVID-19 quarantine.

The 2021 school year brought with it its own set of challenges and adjustments. The transition to fully synchronous remote learning, or hybrid learning, proved taxing for many students across the country. Compounding these challenges was the question that by spring of 2021 loomed large in the mind of school administrators in New York – whether or not the federal government would again allow a waiver of Regents requirements. At the time, the Biden administration was indicating that standardized testing requirements would not be waived in 2021 as they were in 2020, concerning many on the New York State Regents board who had again applied for a waiver this year [3]. Faced with the possibility of having to go forward with the Regents exams, New York State Board of Regents member Roger Tillas stated, “We will comply and I'm sure districts will comply, that doesn't mean that we think it's in the best interest of students.” The New York State United Teachers, the New York branch of the American Federation of Teachers, also put out a statement at the time opposing the administration of standardized tests in June 2021.

Many advocates for children’s rights in the state of New York were also concerned with the impact of the Regents exams on graduation rates. Due to the difficulty of maintaining classroom-level attention in a remote environment and learning in a space shared by other family members who could be working or sick with COVID-19, many students’ grades and attendance levels plummeted. This phenomenon was especially prevalent in underprivileged communities within the state of New York, including lower-income communities and communities of color. New York State used to be one of only eleven states that required passing grades on state exams as a graduation requirement, however, in anticipation of the possibility that the state’s application for a federal waiver would be rejected, the state suspended the rule. When the federal waiver was officially denied [4], the move ended up positively impacting graduation rates statewide [2].

New York State offered four Regents examinations out of ten this past June: English Language Arts, Living Environment, Algebra I, and Physical Setting/Earth Science. However, local school districts were permitted to exempt students from any of the exams if they feared that the public health of students would be endangered. Many schools took advantage of this leniency, and overall a large proportion of students were not required to take a Regents exam at all. The Regents exams that were offered were sometimes pared down, especially with the removal of the laboratory component for the science exams [5]. Students who received remote instruction were also not required to attend school for the sole purpose of taking their Regents exams (which were not administered online). The greatly diminished June exam administration caused many parents and administrators to question whether the Regents examinations were necessary at all.

Although the August 2021 Regents administration was completely canceled, there are currently no official plans to do away with the Regents exams altogether. That said, a large number of students, parents, teachers, and administrators support their elimination. Two mostly “Regent-less” years have seen a rise in New York’s graduation rates, as well as greater freedom for teachers heading Regents courses in secondary schools. These teachers have been able to adjust the curriculum to fit the needs of themselves and their students, rather than having to teach within a rigid set of New York State Requirements. College admissions officials also seem to be relatively unperturbed by a potential lack of Regents scores for applicants. The transition of having to make admissions decisions without these scores has been far more seamless than the transition to a lack of other standardized testing scores, such as AP or SAT scores. Due to all of these factors, some believe that the Regents exams are unlikely to endure far into the future, as they are replaced by more popular modes of standardized testing. The New York State Board of Regents has a great many choices to make with regards to the future of standardized testing, in pursuit of their aim to maximize student educational success in the post-pandemic years ahead.


Sources:

1. http://www.p12.nysed.gov/apda/timeline-history.pdf

2. https://www.ny1.com/nyc/all-boroughs/education/2021/03/30/for-second-straight-year--st udents-will-be-exempt-from-regents-requirements

3. https://www.wgrz.com/article/news/local/board-of-regents-students-can-get-regents-exam -exemption/71-175717c7-f02e-40a5-96bd-893bc47767e6

4. https://www.wkbw.com/news/eye-on-education/u-s-department-of-education-denies-newyorks-waiver-request-to-cancel-state-assessments

5. http://www.p12.nysed.gov/assessment/hsgen/2021/faq-june-august-2021-assessments.pdf

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