Although I grudgingly accept that we live in an era of post-truth and alternative facts, I cling to the hope that some institutions — like education, where I spent more than 40 years as a teacher and administrator — will continue to hold themselves to the highest standards of professionalism and common sense.
The state Education Department redeemed my faith when it reversed its decision against tossing a flawed question from this year’s geometry Regents exam. The department directed that all students will get credit for the question.
The initial rejection of calls to rescore the question represented a new low in the rush to the bottom that characterizes New York and national education policy in the 21st century. David Wayne, a colleague in Hofstra University’s mathematics department who spent as much time as I did in public education, convinced me that this situation is symbolic of similar recent absurd decisions such as this one, which involved student Ben Catalfo, 16, of East Setauket. In rejecting calls to eliminate the item from scoring on the test, department spokeswoman Emily DeSanti said, “He used mathematical concepts that are typically taught in more advanced high school or college courses.”
First and foremost, the law of sines, which Ben used to prove that the question was faulty, is covered in Algebra II, the course following geometry in the New York State mathematics sequence. The artful inclusion of the phrase “or college courses” was an attempt by the department to blur the issue. In fact, many students in our state take the two courses simultaneously.
Moving forward, will teachers of Algebra II and trigonometry advise students that applying material covered in that course will cause answers to be marked wrong on the geometry exam? How about a student who uses techniques included in geometry to answer questions on Algebra II? How far will this reasoning go?
Our best and brightest math students participate in activities like Mathletes and the Al Kalfus Long Island Math Fair, and do independent research on topics that go beyond the mathematical concepts taught in middle school and high school. Are we going to penalize students on state exams for doing that extra work? I hope not.
Teachers from around the state who develop the questions on our Common Core Regents exams work hard to find ways to evaluate the ability of students to reach deeper levels of understanding. As reported in Newsday, “The department also acknowledged that two questions out of 36 on the exam administered June 16 had more than one correct answer.” Many retired teachers and college professors would be willing to evaluate questions on the basis of concepts taught in college-level courses before the tests are administered.
I recognize the inherent difficulties in regrading so many examinations. Thankfully, the powers that be in Albany realized they had no alternative.
I see the imprint of Commissioner MaryEllen Elia on the new decision. She seems to take a more inclusive and transparent approach to her responsibilities than her predecessor, John B. King Jr. We must be sensitive to the needs of our young people, the vast majority of whom work hard all year only to encounter a culminating task that can only be described as sloppy, ill-formed and demeaning.
Elia, thanks for rewarding the Ben Catalfos in our state who push themselves to learn as much math as possible.
Keep up the good work!
Michael Cohen, a former superintendent of the Brentwood school district, is an adjunct associate professor of mathematics at Hofstra University.