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LI educators criticize revamped Regents Geometry exam

Anthony Catalfo and his son Ben, 16, of

Anthony Catalfo and his son Ben, 16, of East Setauket, are among those who questioned the accuracy of questions on the Regents Geometry exam given June 16. They are shown in their home on July 11, 2017. Credit: Raychel Brightman

A growing number of Long Island educators, upset by three straight years of declining student performance on a revamped Regents Geometry exam, are angling for change and pressing the state to lower the cutoff score needed to pass.

Only 64 percent of students taking the geometry test statewide passed in June 2016, according to the latest results available from the state Education Department. In contrast, 72 percent of students passed the state’s Algebra I exam last year and 74 percent passed Algebra II.

All of the tests became more rigorous in recent years after revisions in line with the Common Core academic standards.

Results from the Regents-level math tests given statewide last month generally are not released by the state Education Department until the fall. But protests over the Regents Geometry exam, given June 16, grew louder when the state agency acknowledged that two questions out of 36 on the assessment had more than one correct answer.

School administrators in a half-dozen local districts told Newsday that scores on the geometry test remained disappointing, citing results in their own schools and correspondence with colleagues in other systems.

Algebra I usually is taught in ninth grade, geometry in 10th grade and Algebra II in 11th grade, though many students accelerate such coursework and take the courses one year earlier. More than 135,000 students statewide, including about 30,000 in Nassau and Suffolk counties, took the geometry exam in the 2015-16 school year.

Frustrations over the Regents Geometry results have prompted districts in Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester counties to explore the idea of creating alternative exams. A few systems already offer alternate tests to limited numbers of students.

“People are so livid about this,” said Lorna Lewis, superintendent of Plainview-Old Bethpage schools. “You have kids who are being discouraged from moving to a higher, more challenging level of math — that’s the real story. It hurts kids who are normally high-achieving to have low scores on their transcripts.”

Lewis, who also is president-elect of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, said in an interview that she was speaking for herself on the geometry issue, not the council.

State Education Department officials defended the overall validity of the three-hour geometry assessment. State officials noted that test questions are written by teams of experienced classroom teachers from across the state, then subjected to pilot testing before being incorporated into official assessments.

Disputes linger

Debate over high school exams is the latest in a series of disputes that have shaken the state’s test system since 2013, when more demanding assessments based on the Common Core standards were rolled out in elementary and middle schools. Such standards put more emphasis on real-world problem-solving in math and use more sophisticated English vocabulary in introducing such problems.

In May, more than 90,000 students in grades three through eight on the Island alone refused to take state math tests — maintaining the region’s position as the epicenter of a boycott movement that grew to include 20 percent of students eligible to take the tests statewide.

The state Board of Regents responded last month by revising and renaming Common Core guidelines, dubbing them the Next Generation Learning Standards. The revised standards have not yet received final Regents approval.

The Regents Geometry exam that incorporated the Common Core standards was first given in spring 2015, and an easier test used in prior years was phased out.

On the Island, the number of students meeting the state’s passing standard on the test dropped to 68.3 percent, down from 81.9 percent in spring 2014. Passing rates in 2016 and 2017 continued to be below expectations, local officials said.

The administrators added that the number of students scoring at a higher “mastery” level — equivalent to a numerical grade of 85 or better — also has remained stuck at an unusually low level, averaging about 30 percent of test-takers. In the past, scores on geometry tests resulted in somewhat higher mastery rates overall, and in districts with high academic performance, 60 percent to 70 percent of students reached that level.

Last week, Lewis sent a letter to the Education Department urging a change in the “cut scores” the state uses to determine whether students pass. Lewis said her action was prompted by recent calls from colleagues asking what could be done to address the “travesty” of Regents Geometry exam scores.

The Plainview-Old Bethpage schools chief added in the letter that her district plans to create a geometry course of its own by the start of the 2018-19 school year to help special education students continue studies in the subject without taking a Regents exam.

The Hampton Bays school district already has taken action on the matter: It offers an alternative “Foundations of Geometry” course at the high school level without a Regents exam. A majority of students there continue taking Regents-level courses in the subject, however.

Lars Clemensen, the Hampton Bays superintendent, said the purpose of the alternative course is to encourage high school students to continue taking math courses beyond Algebra I, or introductory algebra.

“If they bail on math after taking that algebra course, then their chances of being truly college- and career-ready diminish significantly,” Clemensen said.

In Westchester County, the Pleasantville school board on Tuesday agreed to a plan that over the next two years will phase out use of the Regents Geometry and Algebra II exams while expanding college-level Advanced Placement exams.

Mary Fox-Alter, the district’s superintendent, estimated that a dozen other districts in the lower Hudson region have either adopted similar approaches or are considering such moves.

“We in Pleasantville and many districts of Westchester don’t want our kids hurt by scores from the geometry exam appearing on their transcripts,” Fox-Alter said.

Questions under the spotlight

Several school administrators questioned the validity of other questions on the geometry exam, in addition to the two that the state acknowledged to be flawed. William Bernhard, principal of Paul J. Gelinas Junior High School in the Three Village district, said he recently was contacted by the father of a young math whiz in the district, who had reported what he considered an error in another question.

Bernhard, who also works as an adjunct math lecturer at Stony Brook University, said he agreed with the critique of the student, Ben Catalfo, but was unable to convince state education officials when he called them later.

Catalfo, 16, who passed Regents Geometry as a seventh-grader, said the issue is important.

“This can mean the difference between students passing or failing, or attending summer school,” said the teen, who will be in the 11th grade in the coming school year.

Students in New York State must pass Regents exams in four or five subjects depending upon their chosen graduation track, including Algebra I, to earn a regular Regents diploma. The Regents Geometry exam is not required to graduate with a regular diploma, but students wishing to graduate with a Regents diploma with academic distinction must pass the test at mastery level.

Emily DeSantis, an Education Department spokeswoman, said the agency has done its best to respond to concerns voiced over the geometry exam.

“We have thoroughly vetted all concerns raised by educators regarding the questions on this exam and found that, with the exception of two questions for which we issued a notice to schools, all other questions on the exam are fair and each appropriately measures a geometry standard,” DeSantis said in a statement.

Elizabeth Kamerer, who teaches geometry at Paul D. Schreiber High School in Port Washington, served on a 25-member committee that drafted questions for the most recent Regents Geometry exam. She said the team works “extremely hard” to produce valid tests.

Kamerer said that students make less use of electronic calculators in taking the geometry test than the state’s other math assessments because of the unique nature of geometry as a subject. Limited use of calculators means that students are more likely to get answers wrong unless they have a strong grasp of subject matter, and may explain the lower scores, Kamerer said.

“I don’t think it’s the geometry test that needs to be changed, it’s the other two exams,” the veteran teacher said.

Some parents took a different view.

Jennifer Autera of Islip, the mother of a ninth-grader, said her daughter barely passed the Regents Geometry exam in June, even though the family spent more than $3,000 on tutoring. Autera added that her daughter regularly earns marks of 90 or better on other tests.

“She was completely distraught the night before the geometry exam,” the mother said. “Does anybody understand the emotional impact of taking that kind of test?”

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