New York State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia speaks to members...

New York State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia speaks to members of the state Board of Regents during a meeting at the State Education Department in Albany, Monday, April 18, 2016. Credit: Hans Pennink

History can be a contentious subject in public schools, and so the state’s Board of Regents agreed Tuesday on a new exam that would measure students’ knowledge of events starting around 1750 — a date chosen partly in hopes of avoiding arguments.

Peter Swerdzewski, the state’s assistant commissioner for assessments, standards and curriculum, told Regents during a preliminary meeting Monday that the precise date picked was 1751. One reason for the designation, he added, was the lack of controversy over that date.

“That’s the one year in which nothing really happened,” said Swerdzewski, who acknowledged his statement was slightly “hyperbolic.”

The assistant commissioner provided few additional details. But several social-studies experts on Long Island explained that one recent debate in their field centered on the question of whether the exam’s coverage should start with the Age of Enlightenment, which began around 1650, or the Industrial Age, which started around 1760.

The dates of 1750 or 1751 were a compromise, experts added.

The new assessment, to be known as Global History and Geography II Regents, will be phased in gradually, starting in June 2019. State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, in a letter to school districts, said the gradual approach was deliberate.

“Over the past few years, we have seen that rolling out new educational initiatives too quickly can result in confusion,” Elia wrote. “Experience has taught us that we must be thoughtful in our approach.”

One purpose of the redesigned exam will be to ease testing strain on 10th-graders around the state.

Traditionally, the state’s Global History exam covered two years’ study in ninth and 10th grades, and was administered at the end of the second year. Questions ranged over a broad array of topics and dates, from prehistoric times to contemporary.

One problem with that approach, according to many teachers, was that students tended to forget material taught during the first year of the course. Failure rates on the exam were relatively high, compared with results on other Regents exams.

The redesigned exam aims to address that problem by covering only events and trends taught in the second year of the course — events that took place after 1750.

Under a revamped schedule approved unanimously Tuesday by the 17-member Regents board, the current Global History and Geography exam will be administered through January 2018.

A transitional test using the same format, but focused on events from 1750 to the present, will be used from June 2018 to January 2019. The new assessment will be introduced in June 2019, but only as an option.

School districts will have the choice of using either the old or new exams from June 2019 to June 2020. The new test alone will be given from August 2020 onward.

Local social-studies educators, who have been briefed on the design of the new exam, generally agreed with the concept.

Gloria Sesso, co-president of the Long Island Council for the Social Studies, said she particularly liked the use of a new type of question known as a “stimulated response.”

One sample test item, she said, showed a painting from 1861 entitled “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way” — depicting American pioneers on the move. A question accompanying the illustration asked about the theme portrayed, which was Manifest Destiny or the idea that the United States was destined to expand across the continent.

“I think it emphasizes kids thinking and I’m in favor of that,” said Sesso, whose 1,100-member organization supported the test redesign.

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