Regents Exam Review Panel ELA

Regents Exam Review Panel
English Language Arts
Report of Proceedings
Hosted by Rockefeller Foundation
June 7, 2001

A panel of eight writers and university faculty met on June
7, 2001, under the auspices of the Rockefeller Foundation, to
review and discuss the English Language Arts (ELA) Regents exam.
As writers and as teachers of college students, we had certain
expectations of such an exam:

  • Values We would expect the exam to reflect literary values
    (such as respect for the text, the author's voice, the context
    within which the author wrote the text) and, for the sections
    on non-literary communication, to reflect the clarity of
    "conventional American English."
  • Higher-order thinking and teaching We would expect the exam
    to reward higher-order thinking and to encourage the highest
    level of pedagogy. We had no doubt that a responsible teacher
    would feel compelled to "teach to the test," especially
    given that the Regents are "high-stakes" exams. As
    every teacher knows, a state-mandated test tells students and
    teachers what is important to know and teach.
  • Curriculum concerns As no single exam can test every aspect
    of a four-year high school curriculum, we would expect that the
    framers of the exam would carefully choose the areas to focus
    on from among the many options offered in a language arts program.
  • College readiness Finally, and of great importance to many
    in our group, we would expect that the exam would signal a student's
    readiness for college work.

None of these expectations were met, however. What we discovered,
instead, was that this test is a test of taking this test.

We made this discovery by the route that we recommend everyone
follow when reviewing the Regents exams: we took the test.

Values Literature was not well served in this exam. As a
group, we'd written more than forty books, so we were more than
a little disappointed by the reading selections, which were often
inconsequential or arcane or arbitrarily edited so that the point
of the selection was a distortion of the piece of literature.
It also seemed strange that the literature readings were presented
on the test without any contextual information - there were no
dates, no bibliographic citations, no titles, no biographical
information about the authors. Furthermore, the short answer
multiple-choice questions, which carried more point value than
the required essays, were insulting to the literature, the author,
and the student. Multiple-choice questions by their nature deny
literature any subtlety or ambiguity. (Which emotion does Chekhov
refer to in the lines "for the first-time in her life it
was her lot to experience in all its acuteness the feeling that
is so familiar to the persons in dependent positions, who eat
the bread of the rich and powerful and cannot speak their minds"?
Is it (3) humiliation or (4) fear?)

Writing was not well served in this exam either. It seems
that the framers of this exam have somehow managed to ignore every
piece of research that has been published in the last twenty-five
years about rhetoric and the writing process. While taking this
exam, we had to forget about everything we know or have learned
about writing. The Regents is a timed test and each section is
discrete. There is no time for reflection. Instead of requiring
students to rethink, revise, and rewrite their essays after a
few hours, or perhaps the next day, the Regents format prohibits
revision - the single most effective, teachable, and sustainable
method for improving the quality of prose.

Higher-order thinking and teaching None of us liked the prospect
of high school teachers devoting classroom time to the skills
and strategies most likely to improve scores, such as high-percentage
guessing, skipping the questions you can't answer, and using the
language of the essay question rather than your own ideas to frame
a written response.

"That's already happening," said panelists with children
enrolled in public schools. Moreover, several private, for-profit
companies have already developed Regents-specific test-preparation
courses for students who can afford their fees, which nullifies
the claim that the Regents restores equity to public education.

In fact, as a result of taking this test, we have some advice
for students and teachers:

1. Do not read any of the passages provided. Reading is a
waste of time. Just go directly to the questions and then go
to the passage to ferret out vocabulary and context-specific questions
(e.g., to answer a question such as: The second phase of [Susan
B.] Anthony's strategy was to change the law at what level of
government?)

2. When you read a part of a passage, do not expect to encounter
conventional American English. This is particularly important
if you are a non-native speaker of English who might think native
speakers can easily parse sentences like this: "Like music,
it split the bulging rim of the future along its seam. It pried
out the present. We watchers waited for the split-second curve
of beauty to reveal itself."

3. Do not study the charts and graphs. The multiple-choice
questions that refer to them are typically keyed to details you
will not recall.

4. Don't waste time thinking about the test; no one is interested
in what you think.

5. Do not attempt to write an original essay. You don't have
time. Points are awarded and subtracted on the basis of a formula.
Write the five-paragraph essay, even though you will probably
never again have a personal or professional occasion to use this
format. It requires no comprehension of the text you are citing,
and you can feel smart for having wasted no time reflecting on
the literature selections.

Curriculum concerns It was surprising that the Regents exam
offered students no opportunity to demonstrate so many of the
skills and abilities that are mandated by the ELA Standards.
Research methods and skills are not applicable to the required
tasks; oral communication - including public speaking, performance,
debate and the specified use of "the social communications
of others" (in the language of the NYS Learning Standards
in ELA) - is not tested; the collaborative, multidisciplinary
and technology-based classroom work mandated by the curricular
standards is disregarded. The Regents tells students that most
of the learning and intellectual work mandated by the standards
are simply not important.

College readiness What does this test test? It does not help
students identify their weak areas in order to guide their future
studies. As college professors, we know that it does not identify
a student's readiness for college-level work (see our five points
on how to take the test).

Genuine assessment takes time. Learning is complex and assessments
should be, too. The State has shown no inclination for either
allotting time or addressing complexity. Like many educators
and parents, the members of the panel had hoped that the Regents
exam was better than nothing. But after submitting to it, we
can attest that it's not a high-flying standard; it's not even
a true standard. The Regents is not better than nothing, and
it's not nearly as good as the available alternatives [e.g., the
performance assessment tasks created and endorsed by the NY Performance
Standards Consortium (Consortium)].

If you can afford the tuition, you can choose one of New York's
exclusive independent schools, where students are exempt from
the Regents requirement. (If it was a good test, and if it really
did engender academic excellence, wouldn't the independent schools
lobby to be included rather than excluded?)

For those in the NYC public schools, the only alternative in
use is the Consortium's performance assessment system, a system
now under threat of extinction by NYS Commissioner Mills and his
Board of Regents. For the sake of comparison, the panel
read several essays written by students in Consortium schools
as a prerequisite for an intensive oral competency assessment.
These essays showed students working analytically, using language
to interrogate texts and to express their own ideas about them
and making connections among memorable and momentous books. Not
only were the students evidently invested in these essays, the
essays created opportunities for teachers to invest time productively
in their students. The essays were more engaging and more significant
than the essays written for the Regents exam, not least because
they represented far more time and complexity: time for thinking,
choosing a topic, discussing, consulting with peers and teachers,
drafting, revising, responding to readers' comments and resubmitting.
And there was still more time to rethink and rewrite.

Looking at this work, we agreed that it represented a level
of commitment and quality that we hoped all students would bring
to our classrooms.

Report Signed by:

Michael Downing:
Novelist; Lecturer in English, Tufts University; Former Director
of Writing, Wheelock College
David L. Hoover:
Associate Professor, Associate Chair, Department of English,
New York University; Author
Jane Lazarre:
Faculty, Eugene Lang College of the New School University; Former
Director of Undergraduate Writing Program at Lang; Author
Louise Meriwether:
Author; Harlem Writers' Guild; Watts Writers' Guild; Former Faculty,
Sarah Lawrence College
Robert O'Meally:
Zora Neale Hurston Professor of Literature, Columbia University;
Director, Center for Jazz Studies; Author
Sondra Perl:
Professor, Lehman College; Faculty, CUNY Graduate Center; Former
Director, New York City Writing Project; Author
Ellen Willis:
Director, Cultural Journalism Program, New York University; Former
Senior Editor, The Village Voice; Writer
Ron Wolk:
Founding Editor of Education Week, Teacher Magazine, and Quality
Counts; Former Assistant Director, Carnegie Commission on the
Future of Higher Education

Michael Downing is the author of four novels: A Narrow
Time
(Vintage Contemporaries, 1987), Mother of God
(Simon & Schuster, 1990), Perfect Agreement (Counterpoint,
1997), and Breakfast With Scot (Counterpoint, 1999). He
is also the author of the forthcoming work of non-fiction, Shoes
Outside the Door: Scandals of Desire
, Devotion and Excess
at the San Francisco Zen Center
(Counterpoint, 2001). He
is the former Director of Writing at Wheelock College and currently
a Lecturer in English at Tufts University.

David L. Hoover is Associate Professor of English; Associate
Chair, Department of English, New York University. He is the
author of Language and Style in the Inheritors (University
Press of America, 1999) and A New Theory of Old English Meter
(Peter Lang, 1985).

Jane Lazarre is on the faculty of Writing and Literature
at the Eugene Lang College of the New School University, where
she developed and directed the undergraduate writing program for
more than ten years. In 1995, she was given a university award
for excellence in teaching. Her books include: The Mother
Knot
(McGraw-Hill, 1976) and On Loving Men (Dial Press,
1980); the novels: Some Kind of Innocence (Dial Press,
1980), The Powers of Charlotte (Crossing Press, 1987),
and Worlds Beyond My Control (Dutton, 1981); and two memoirs:
Beyond the Whiteness of Whiteness: Memoir of a White Mother
of Black Sons
(Duke University Press, 1996) and Wet Earth
and Dreams: A Narrative of Grief and Recovery
(Duke University
Press, 1998). Her reviews and articles have appeared in Salon,
The Village Voice, Ms., Feminist Studies, American Literature,
and Transformations. She is the recipient of grants
in fiction from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New
York Foundation for the Arts, and has been granted fellowships
by the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo and Virginia Center for Creative
Artists.

Louise Meriwether is a former faculty member of Sarah
Lawrence College and the University of Houston. She is the author
of the novels Daddy Was a Number Runner (Prentice-Hall,
1970), Fragments of the Ark (Pocket Books, 1994), and Shadow
Dancing
(One World/Ballantine, 2000). She has also published
historical biographies for children, including Freedom Ship
of Robert Smalls
(Prentice-Hall, 1971), The Heart Man:
Dr. Daniel Hale Williams (
Prentice-Hall. 1972), and Don't
Ride the Bus on Monday: The Rosa Parks Story
(Prentice-Hall,
1973). She is the recipient of grants from the National Endowment
for the Arts, the Mellon Foundation, the New York State Foundation
for the Arts, and the Rabinowitz Foundation. She has worked on
the staff of both the Watts Writers' Workshop and the Harlem Writers'
Guild.

Robert O'Meally is Zora Neale Hurston Professor of Literature
at Columbia University, where he is also Director of the Center
for Jazz Studies. He is the author of The Craft of Ralph Ellison
(Harvard University Press, 1980), New Essays on Invisible Man
(Cambridge University Press, 1988), and Lady Day: The Many
Faces of Billie Holiday
(Arcade, 1991). He is the principal
writer of Seeing Jazz (1997), the catalogue for the Smithsonian's
exhibit on jazz painting and literature. He co-edited two volumes,
History and Memory in African American Culture (Oxford
University Press, 1994) and The Norton Anthology of African
American Literature
(1996). He edited The Jazz Cadence
of American Culture
(Columbia University Press, 1998), which
was awarded the ASCAP-Deems Taylor prize in December 1999; and
the Modern Library volume Living with Music: Ralph Ellison's
Jazz Writings
(Random House, 2001). He also wrote the script
for the documentary Lady Day and for the documentary accompanying
the Smithsonian exhibit, Duke Ellington: Beyond Category (1995).
Professor O'Meally was nominated for a Grammy for his work as
co-producer and author of the five CD box-set called The Jazz
Singers
(1998).

Sondra Perl is a full professor at Lehman College and
a member of the doctoral faculty in composition theory at the
CUNY Graduate Center. Her specialty is the teaching of writing.
In 1978 she founded and then spent 10 years directing the New
York City Writing Project, a regional branch of the National Writing
Project, the largest teacher-training network in the country.
She has had federal funding to conduct ethnographic studies of
writing classrooms in New York City and on Long Island. Perl
is a Guggenheim Fellow. Selected Publications: Through Teachers'
Eyes: Portraits of Writing Teachers at Work
(with Nancy Wilson)
(Heinemann, 1986); "The Process of Creative Discovery: Theory,
Research and Implications for Teaching", in The Territory
of Language: Linguistics, Stylistics, and the Teaching of Composition
,
Ed. Donald McQuade (with Arthur Egendorf) (Southern Illinois UP,
1986); "A Writer's Way of Knowing: Guidelines for Composing",
in Presence of Mind: Writing and the Domain Beyond the Cognitive,
Eds. Alice Brand and Richard Graves (Boynton/Cook, 1994); Landmark
Essays on Writing Process
(editor) (Hermagoras Press, 1994).

Ellen Willis directs the Cultural Journalism Program at
New York University, where she is also the Chapter President,
American Association of University Professors. She was a columnist
and senior editor for The Village Voice, former pop music
critic for The New Yorker, and has written for Rolling
Stone, Mirabella, Ms., The Nation, The New York Times Book Review,
Newsday
and Salmagundi. Her latest book is Don't
Think, Smile! Notes on a Decade of Denial
(Beacon). She is
the author of Beginning to See the Light: Sex, Hope, and Rock
and Roll
(Knopf, 1981) and No More Nice Girls: Countercultural
Essays
(Wesleyan University/University Press of New England,
1992).

Ron Wolk was the founding editor of Education Week,
Teacher Magazine,
and Quality Counts, all published
by Editorial Projects in Education, where he served as Chairman
of the Board. Ron Wolk also served as assistant director of the
Carnegie Commission on the Future of Higher Education and as a
vice president at Brown University. He is currently a consultant
for Education and Media Relations, living in Warwick, Rhode Island.