I would like to express my outrage over the handling of the new Physics Regents that was given this spring. I think that both the state and local school districts need to re-examine the results of this exam and accept responsibility for subjecting students to a test that most were not adequately prepared for. Students taking this year's exam should not be penalized with failing, lower-than-expected and disappointing grades just because the State Education Department adopted new standards which were not reflected by changes in the classroom and because they chose an unprecedented method of scaling down the scores so that fewer students would be successful.
The State Education Department designed a new Physics Regents that was administered for the first time this year. I have spoken to the commissioner of testing and he maintains that schools statewide were aware for the last five years that a new test was coming. He defends that teachers had input into the design and content of the exam and the setting of standards, that workshops were held and sample test questions distributed. Richard Mills, education commissioner, has maintained that the test given was "sound" and the scoring "accurate."
The actual results of the exam tell a different story. According to Newsday, there was a 33 percent failure rate statewide, up from 11 percent, and in New York City there was a 53 percent failure rate compared to 29 percent last year. In addition to the statistics about those who failed, the test had a devastating effect on all students; even honor students who normally demonstrate mastery on state Regents exams with grades in the 90s, on this exam received graders in the 70s and 80s. Should students who failed this exam, or who did poorly be made to feel that somehow they did not work hard enough, study enough, or were not smart enough to do better? I think it is a mistake to put the burden of the unusually high failure rate and overall poor performance on the students.
The State Education Department needs to recognize that despite its workshops and sample test questions, the fact is that the shift in emphasis, the change in content, and the overall modification to the standards, did not translate into changes in the classroom. Teachers have expressed to students that the state guidelines about the new exam were so vague that they were just as surprised as the students were by the actual changes and content in the exam. They shared the students' frustration and outrage that they were not adequately prepared. In addition, the teachers vehemently objected to the scoring which raised the bar for passing by 15 percent, i.e., because of the drastic scaling down of scores, students had to perform about 15 percent better to pass this exam as compared to previous years.
As a result, students had a better understanding and knowledge of the material than was reflected in their score. Many school districts on Long Island joined together and most decided not to count the students' scaled down scores in their final grades; this was their way of acknowledging that the new test was unfair and that the students should not be penalized. Yet, despite this recognition, the test grade still appears on the students' transcripts. This is not consistent.
By claiming that the test was unfair, I am in no way attacking the new Regents exam based on the higher standards set, nor am I suggesting that the test be made easier because students did not do well. However, I am suggesting that the state commissioner reflect on the poor performance on the exam and take some responsibility for the results. Educators know that poor student performance on an exam can mean that the test was badly designed or worded, or that students were not adequately prepared. With little guidance from teachers who say they were as much in the dark about the new exam as the students, with only a few sample questions and review books with only past exams to study from, it is obvious from the failure rate that students were not prepared. Commissioner Mills as much as acknowledged this when he was quoted in Newsday as saying, whenever a new test format is introduced there is a potential for misunderstanding and complaints and that, "I would expect that the results will quickly rise [next year]." Of course, now that teachers have had a chance to see the new exam and can learn from it, they will be better able to prepare their students next year. And the students the year after that have two exams to study from so they should do even better. But, what about the students who took the new exam this year? Should they be penalized? A 33 percent or 53 percent failure rate is not just a little "misunderstanding!" To the student who failed or did not do well, this was devastating! To many, this means retaking the exam in August.
In July, Mills offered all students the option to retake the exam in August, with both scores still being reflected on a student's transcript. For many students who were already away for the summer, this was not even a realistic option. But why would a student retake the exam when he would have no other instruction to help him improve his score? Without the ability to go over the old exam and find out what he got wrong, and without new instruction on topics not covered in class before, why would a student retake the test and think he could do better? Making the student retake a new test is not the solution to the problem, and once again deflects responsibility from the agency that created the new test without making sure that students were given the right instruction, to the students who must retake it.
With its disregard for the outrage that has grown out of the results of the new physics exam, the Board of Regents, and the State Education Department seem to demonstrate an arrogance that they are above accountability to the educators, students and families in New York. I find this unacceptable. I have impressed upon my children, particularly during their adolescent years, that they must accept responsibility for their actions. No matter how well intentioned they are, when they make a mistake that hurts or negatively impacts others, I expect my children to accept responsibility and take whatever steps are necessary to make things right. I feel that students like my daughter, who took the new Physics Regents exam, have the right to accept no less from the adults in authority around them. This is an opportunity for the commissioner and administrators in our school districts to admit that a mistake was made and ensure that students are not made to suffer for it.
I am infuriated by Commissioner Mills' glib response that the test was sound and students in the future will do better. He should instead admit that the test was invalid because teachers statewide did not have enough information about it to adequately prepare students for it, and he should look within his own agency to find out ways to improve the dissemination of information in the future. Obviously, whatever was done was not enough.
We do not want students who did poorly on the new physics test to internalize the fact that they are not good in physics. This is not the message that we want students to come away with. Nor do we want to discourage students from taking challenging courses like physics in the future, because this could easily be the effect of this debacle. Students who have already taken Regents exams in earth science, biology and chemistry do not need to take physics to graduate. Why would someone opt to take a course like physics when they know that the test has been made more difficult and the scores will be scaled down to ensure that they do not do well? We want to encourage students to take challenging courses, but then let us not make it impossible for them to be successful.
A mistake was made here and the students should not be made to bear the brunt of it. School districts need to continue to protest to the State Education Department and to the governor, and if the state continues to be unresponsive, schools should on their own decide to either scale the test according to the old scoring method which would allow more students to pass and achieve higher scores, or upon request, invalidate the test and eliminate the grades from student transcripts. Perhaps then Commissioner Mills will learn what we have been trying to teach our children: take responsibility for your actions, and when you make a mistake, try to set things right.
Marian Van Nostrand