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State drops plans to raise passing Common Core Regents exam scores

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia speaks with students

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia speaks with students in the new media room during a visit to Baldwin High School on March 24, 2017. Credit: Steve Pfost

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia has quietly dropped plans to raise passing scores on Common Core Regents exams in English and math by the year 2022 — plans originally pushed as a linchpin in efforts for students’ strengthened academic performance and preparation for college and careers.

Elia, in a memo to school superintendents across the state last week, ruled that 65 will remain the minimum passing score on English Language Arts and mathematics exams instead of the scores of 75 and 80, respectively, that the Education Department had said would be required in 2022.

More than 160,000 students statewide, including 30,000 on Long Island, are awarded Regents diplomas each year. High school students must pass both the English and math tests, as well as two other Regents exams, to earn the diplomas.

As the reason for the change, the commissioner’s memo cited state plans to revise English and math standards, as well as tests measuring achievement, over the next several years.

“Therefore, there will be no change in the scale scores required for students to meet the graduation requirements for the Class of 2022 on either the ELA or Mathematics Regents exams,” the commissioner wrote.

Newsday obtained a copy of the memo. It was dated April 3 and unaccompanied by a news release.

The calendar ahead for the Class of 2022 gave greater urgency to the issue of higher required Regents exam scores. Students due to graduate that year now are in the seventh grade.

That posed a dilemma for local districts, which must decide by the end of this school year which seventh-graders to place in accelerated math classes in the fall. Students in the advanced classes, as eighth-graders, would take Regents math exams normally reserved for ninth-graders.

District administrators would be reluctant to place many eighth-graders in Regents math classes if they knew those students had to score 80, rather than 65, to meet graduation requirements.

The New York State School Boards Association in October urged Elia to reaffirm that 65 would remain the passing score for all Regents exams. In addition, the New York State Council of School Superintendents had told the commissioner that getting students to the higher marks in English and math was proving difficult and had asked her to clarify the requirement for 2022.

On Monday, Education Department staffers confirmed Elia’s decision to keep the passing scores at 65, saying it was largely in response to such concerns.

Elia, since taking the state’s top schools post in July 2015, has spent much of her time addressing the opposition to the test and graduation requirements put in place previously.

This change marks another pullback by from reforms initiated in 2010 that brought public opposition against Albany’s direction on school curriculums, testing and teachers’ performance evaluations.

That year, in a highly publicized statement, the state Board of Regents announced it would push more students to become “college and career ready” in step with the Common Core academic standards issued earlier that year by the National Governors Association.

In February 2014, after controversy over the rollout of curriculum and tests aligned with the Common Core, the board decided to ease some testing and evaluation requirements for students and teachers.

But complaints from educators and parents continued, accompanied by unprecedented, record-setting boycotts of state tests in grades three through eight. In December 2015, the Regents board in an “emergency regulation” declared a four-year moratorium on using those students’ scores in any way that might reflect poorly on academic records or as a component in teachers’ job evaluations.

Originally, in the push for college and career readiness, the state had planned to move to higher Regents exam passing scores by 2017. Amid complaints from teachers, school administrators and others that it was going too fast, the state postponed the change until 2022.

Elia’s latest statement, in effect, puts off the action indefinitely.

The commissioner’s message relieved many local school administrators, who had sought clarification on the scores question.

“This was absolutely the right way to go,” said David Weiss, superintendent of Long Beach schools and a regional expert on advanced high school coursework.

Weiss noted that the state recently rewrote Regents exams in English and algebra to reflect Common Core standards. Revisions produced more difficult exams, with more complex word problems in math and more sophisticated reading passages in English — even without a move to higher passing scores.

Last year, the state lowered passing marks on the algebra test after that year’s assessment produced a greater number of student failures.

Bonnie Buckley, an East Islip parent active in her district’s Special Education Parent-Teacher Organization, welcomed Elia’s decision to keep passing test scores at 65 while adding that the state should further relax requirements to help struggling students.

“Passages on the New York State Regents exams are now written at a college level, and it’s not appropriate to require students to read at a college level to get a high school diploma,” Buckley said.

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