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State: Geometry Regents exam has a glitch, once again

A student solves geometry problems during a class

A student solves geometry problems during a class at John F. Kennedy High School in Plainview on Dec. 14, 2017. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

State school officials, for the second year in a row, have acknowledged a scoring glitch on a controversial Regents geometry exam administered earlier this week to thousands of high-school students statewide.

A notice marked “Important” and posted on the State Education Department’s website after testing was completed indicated that one exam question had two possible correct answers, not just one. The notice asked districts to recheck students’ answers on that item, to make sure they get full credit for either answer.

“We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause you, and we thank you for your hard work on behalf of the students in New York State,” the notice stated.

Last year, the department reported flaws in three questions on the geometry exam — one of them discovered by a 16-year-old student in East Setauket.

Many local school officials condemned the state for its handling of that situation. In response, State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia pledged that exams would get extra vetting in the future in an effort to prevent such mistakes.

This week, local reactions to the latest testing error were more mixed, with some educators remarking that the state seemed to be bending over backward to give students the benefit of the doubt. Several math experts said the existence of alternative correct answers seemed to reflect different approaches taken by students in rounding off numbers.

The math question at issue — No. 31 on the exam — asked students to calculate the volume “to the nearest cubic inch” of an inflated basketball with a circumference of 29.5 inches. The state originally gave 434 as the correct answer, then decided in response to questions from teachers that 433 could also be considered correct.

“I don’t think it’s a major problem,” said Lorna Lewis, superintendent of Plainview-Old Bethpage schools and a former math teacher.

Lewis, who also serves as president-elect of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, said the state appeared “generous” in its scoring policy. She added that she spoke for herself on this issue, not the council.

On the other hand, Michael Cohen, an adjunct math professor emeritus at Hofstra University, said that any confusion over test questions and answers was likely to be stressful for students — especially those struggling with math.

“Any students who spent 15 minutes trying to decide whether the correct answer was 434 or 433 just lost 15 minutes that they could have used to answer other questions or check their work,” Cohen said.

The three-hour geometry exam, which is considered one of the state’s more difficult assessments of student achievement, was administered Tuesday morning. The education department notified districts of the alternative correct answer at midday Wednesday, after some teachers called the agency for guidance in scoring.

“When more than 150,000 high school students statewide take an exam, the possibility exists that a few, highly proficient students may approach the question differently than envisioned by the NYS educators and Department staff who reviewed the test question,” said Jonathan Burman, an agency spokesman, in a prepared statement Friday.

Burman added that the department “will always be fair” to students who come up with valid alternative answers.

Ian Dunst, math director in the Half Hollow Hills district, said he and other local staffers were “bothered a little” that the state’s notice was posted after staffers had finished grading students’ papers.

“But in the larger scheme of things, if it requires us to put in an extra hour, then it was definitely worth it,” said Dunst.

Roberta Gerold, superintendent of Middle Country schools and a former president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association, voiced concern about the potential impact on students confused by a test question.

“How unfair is this to kids who might be one or two points away from passing?” Gerold said. “We rely on the vetting process to ensure that the grading rules are clear.”

The geometry exam, which has generated controversy both due to its difficulty and confusion over scoring, is not among the four Regents tests usually required for graduation. However, it normally is required for an “advanced” diploma, which is often sought by college-bound students.

Question #31 Regents Geometry (June 2018): Randy’s basketball is in the shape of a sphere with a maximum circumference of 29.5 inches. Determine and state the volume of the basketball, to the nearest cubic inch.

Correct answer: 433 or 434.

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