NY Test Fiasco Prompts Calls to Reassess High Stakes

K-12 Testing

In the midst of a firestorm of criticism over the flawed 2003 New York Math A Regents exam, which resulted in a nearly 65 percent failure rate, the state testing director has resigned and a legislative leader has called for public hearings on the state’s high-stakes testing policy.


Students must pass this and four other exams to earn a diploma in New York. As a result of the public furor, State Education Commissioner Richard Mills allowed seniors who completed all other requirements except the Math A test to graduate.


Steven Sanders, D-Manhattan, chairman of the Education Committee in the State Assembly, said he and his state Senate counterpart intend to hold hearings about high-stakes assessments in the late summer to give the public a chance to air their views on the state’s educational policies.


Quoted in The New York Times, Sanders said, “For me, this ought to be a wake-up call. This is not the first time that New York State has had a problem with an exam, and it is certainly not going to be the last. This is yet another example of the fact that any standardized exam is going to be subject to imperfections.”


The New York Regents’ troubles have included a boycott several years ago (see Examiner, Spring 2002); the alteration of reading passages, discovered by a parent activist (see Examiner, Summer 2002); a series of independent reviews that found the Regents profoundly flawed (Examiner, Winter-Spring 2003); and high failure rates on the Regents physics exam for several years running, prompting the New York State Association of School Superintendents to write college admissions officers urging them to disregard its results.


While states like Massachusetts have managed to keep failure rates on their state tests within “politically acceptable” levels (aided by significant retention and attrition rates), New York flunked this political test. Parents, teachers, administrators, legislators and the news media cried foul and asked for an investigation, with some calling for Mills’ resignation.


The uproar culminated in a large rally of more than 250 people in Rochester organized by a coalition of parents and educators. That same day, Mills announced that the Math A Regents exam was unfair and that districts would be able to use class grades to determine whether seniors could graduate with Regents diplomas.


New York Times columnist Michael Winerip underscored the larger significance of the fiasco in his weekly education column: “A state testing system that produces a test with what appears to be a 70 percent failure rate is way out of kilter. Something is radically wrong. This is not just about Math A. It is time for a rigorous, truly independent review of New York’s entire testing system. Dr. Mills and his band of adults who have been so certain about the value of standardized tests to assess children need to be rigorously assessed themselves.”