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NY education chief: Regents exams to get more scrutiny for accuracy

Regent Roger Tilles, left, Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia,

Regent Roger Tilles, left, Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, center, and Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa at the state Board of Regents meeting in Albany on Monday, Oct. 16, 2017. Photo Credit: Tim Roske

ALBANY — State Regents exams will undergo extra scrutiny following the discovery of three flaws in a recently administered geometry test — one of them reported by a 16-year-old East Setauket student.

Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia on Monday confirmed plans to add a new level of vetting by teachers for questions on the exams. The revamped system should be in place by spring, she said.

“We’re going to have more teachers looking at the geometry exams,” Elia said during a brief interview before Monday’s monthly meeting of the state Board of Regents. “We’re going to be looking at other exams as well.”

The Regents exams — a fixture of New York’s public education system for more than a century — are established by the board and administered by the Education Department. More than 100,000 students across the state take the Regents Geometry exam each year.

Later in the day, the Regents tentatively approved a proposal allowing teachers displaced by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands to teach temporarily in New York State. The plan, which is expected to be voted on by the full board Tuesday, assumes that such teachers would be of help in dealing with an expected influx of students from those U.S. territories.

Teachers who lost school credentials in the storm can submit other identification, such as sworn affidavits, and will be allowed to work here through the end of the current school year on temporary permits. After that, they can seek initial New York State certification under reciprocity agreements with the territories.

Controversy over the Regents Geometry exam arose in June, after hundreds of thousands of teens took that test and others. Such assessments are used to verify that students have completed high school courses satisfactorily and have met graduation requirements.

The Education Department quickly acknowledged that two questions on the exam had more than one correct answer. The agency blamed the confusion on “discrepancies in the wording.”

In July, the department conceded similar flaws in a third question uncovered by Ben Catalfo, an 11th-grader at Ward Melville High School in Setauket. Catalfo, a math whiz who passed the exam in seventh grade, found the flaw as he was reviewing the test in order to tutor other students.

The department apologized for the errors and rescored all of those geometry exams.

Catalfo on Monday praised the department’s actions.

“It’s nice that after discovering the mistake, they’ve not only fixed the mistake, but they’re also trying to prevent future mistakes from happening,” he said.

Elia’s confirmation of further corrective action involves the addition of at least one extra layer of test review in an already complex 12-step assessment system. The commissioner first outlined the plan last month at a statewide school superintendents’ conference in Saratoga Springs.

Later Monday, Education Department staffers explained how the plan would work.

Basically, a new committee of teacher volunteers from across the state would review all exam questions after the items had been tried out on a pilot basis in “field tests” conducted among sample groups of students statewide. Questions flagged by committee members would not be included in actual large-scale tests.

Teachers already participate in other stages of the testing process, including the initial drafting of questions.

Some local school authorities have reservations about the department’s approach.

One such critic was Lorna Lewis, superintendent of Plainview-Old Bethpage schools, who said allowing a committee of teachers to review questions that already had been field-tested means, in effect, that those teachers would see all questions actually slated to appear on exams. That, she said, could give such teachers an unfair advantage.

Lewis suggested that a better approach would be to bring in the extra teachers earlier in the process to review field tests.

“My reaction is ‘Great to have more teachers involved, but get them involved at the trial-test level,’ ” the superintendent said.

Lewis is president-elect of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, which held the September conference, and also is co-chair of the council’s curriculum committee.

Elia, in response, said the department’s review plan was appropriate and similar to systems used in other states.

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