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OPINION: Don't drop Regents exams, improve them. Starting with math

Alfred S. Posamentier, a professor of mathematics education at the City College of the City University of New York, is a former member of the New York State Standards Commission. New York is thinking about eliminating many of its Regents exams to cut costs during this fiscal crisis. On balance, it's an ill-advised move. The examinations have historically served as fine assurance that high schools are holding to the state's Education Department standards. But there's a problem with the mathematics Regents exams that is not financial.

For most of their 145-year history, the Regents exams were properly constructed and evaluated, and they provided everyone - from school officials to parents to college admissions counselors - with an assurance that instruction was being monitored and was uniform throughout the state.

But the gates set by today's math Regents exams are unrealistically low. There is widespread poor achievement in mathematics among students in New York State schools, yet most students are able to get through their math Regents exams without much trouble. And so they move along a path of false promises and achieve little when objectively assessed.

My recent visits to high school mathematics classes revealed a major problem: Instructors were asked to teach math to students who were wrongly assigned to classes for which they were not prepared. This sort of assignment can be devastatingly demotivating for the teacher. It's hard for teachers to be enthusiastic when their students are incorrectly placed. And such placements are typically based on Regents examination results, which in recent years have provided false assessments.

Some of the tests used to monitor progress are simply not proper measures of achievement, or their rating scale provides a faulty assessment. A case in point: The Regents Integrated Algebra exam, which is typically taken by students in the ninth grade, is not a very challenging instrument and, amazingly, requires that a student answer only about 35 percent of the questions correctly to pass.

Such a low "passing grade" could then send a student onto the next course - typically geometry - knowing only about one-third of the material from the previous mathematics course.

This student is truly doomed to failure. And a class of such students presents, even to an experienced mathematics teacher, an almost insurmountable challenge. Above all, it's a very uninspiring environment for providing motivating instruction. The math teacher is dealt a class that is simply not ready to learn the material.

In addition to having too low a bar for passing, recent Regents exams were not well designed and contained some very poor questions.

For example, on the August 2009 Regents Geometry Examination, Question 2 provided a detailed construction of the bisection of an angle and then asked some trivial questions about the concept of bisection (i.e. cutting in half). Then - almost insultingly - Question 32 provided students with an angle and asked them to bisect it. All an alert student had to do was look back at Question 2 and copy the picture.

If we want to bring about meaningful change in our schools, then rather than blame teachers for not being motivating enough, we should make proper student placement the highest priority. We do no one a favor by putting students ahead of where they are qualified to be. If a student isn't ready for a particular course, then a meaningful support program - not merely a "holding pattern" program - should be put in place and staffed by the strongest teachers in the school.

A valid Regents exam administered to students truly ready for it, and a proper evaluation of these exams, will rapidly turn around our current crisis of underprepared math students. We should keep this time-honored assessment tool, but let's construct it and grade it correctly.

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