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January's Regents exams canceled, state education officials say

The state has once again canceled Regents exams.

The state has once again canceled Regents exams. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

State Regents exams originally scheduled for Jan. 26 through Jan. 29 will be canceled due to disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, top education officials said Thursday.

The announcement marks the third time in eight months the state has scrubbed Regents exams — administered at the high school level — since the health crisis erupted. The state Education Department in earlier actions called off testing this past June — traditionally, the largest administration of each school year — along with a smaller round of exams in August of this year.

Students who otherwise pass course-credit requirements during the current semester will be exempt from taking Regents exams in those subjects, officials said.

The state's interim education commissioner, Betty A. Rosa, in deciding the three-hour tests would be scratched again, cited unevenness of local school schedules during the pandemic as a major factor. Some students attend school five days a week, while others work mostly at home as a safety precaution, limiting time for contact with teachers, officials noted.

"The decision was to me a no-brainer," said Roger Tilles of Manhasset, who represents Long Island on the state's policymaking Board of Regents. "Any uniform test is bound to be inequitable to some degree, because of the way schools are financed. But this pandemic has exaggerated the effect."

First administered in 1866, Regents exams traditionally served as gatekeepers to graduation. Students typically have been required to pass at least four exams, though the rule was temporarily suspended when the coronavirus hit.

About 300,000 students statewide generally take the January tests, while about 1.6 million participate in June. State officials said Thursday that a decision will be made later in the academic year on whether to go ahead with a scheduled June round.

Thursday's decision seemed likely to amplify a widespread debate over whether state testing should be shut down during the pandemic. On Oct. 30, dozens of parent and educator representatives sent a joint letter to the Regents and education department, urging them to remove Regents exams as graduation requirements until August 2021.

Two days earlier, in contrast, The Education Trust-New York, a research and advocacy organization, released results of a poll of 800 public school parents. The survey, done in partnership with a public affairs firm, found that 94% of parents felt state tests provided important information on whether their schools did a good job teaching children.

"Canceling the state tests this year would reduce the amount of information parents have, at a time when parents are asking for more information," said Ian Rosenblum, executive director of Education Trust-NY.

Rosenblum later explained he was referring to required tests for grades three through eight, and had not taken a stance on Regents exams.

The cancellation of January exams has won wide support from school administrators and teachers, who said they need more time to prep students for any testing. Many districts postponed school openings in September in order to provide staff with more training in virus-protection techniques.

"Given the various starts to the school year, it's difficult to have an exam in January," said Lorna Lewis, superintendent of Malverne schools. "You cannot assess everybody in January with equity."

Lewis, a past president of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, said she and colleagues have not yet taken a position on whether June exams should be resumed.

Others have made up their minds. John Gilmore of Long Beach, executive director of the Autism Action Network, said he supports those calling for extended suspension of Regents exams as graduation requirements.

"I'm not a big fan of high-stakes testing, especially when it affects a high school diploma," said Gilmore, whose network has worked closely with parents lobbying on behalf of students with disabilities. He went on to characterize testing during a pandemic as "setting kids up for failure."

Regents exams are not the only tests up for discussion this school year. Albany education officials also must decide what to do about state English and math tests covering students in grades three through eight, which are normally given in April and May.

The state suspended those assessments in March, after U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced that students impacted by school closures due to the pandemic could bypass standardized testing for the 2019-20 school year. In September, DeVos informed states that they should not expect further waivers in 2020-21.

Federal law requires testing of students in English, math and science at the elementary, middle school and high school levels.

"They are among the most reliable tools available to help us understand how students are performing in school," DeVos stated in a Sept. 3 letter to state school authorities.

A policy adviser to former Vice President Joe Biden was noncommittal recently when asked by reporters what approach the Democratic candidate would take on testing waivers, should he be elected president.

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