Are Regents Exams Worth Keeping in Westchester?

Writer Phil Reisman recalls his struggles with Regents testing and reflects upon the potential fate of the exams in New York State.

My geometry teacher in high school was a nice enough guy, but he was young, inexperienced, and frankly, not very good at explaining the abstract world of trapezoids and isosceles triangles.

Worse, he had a verbal tic.

He used the word “okay” as a crutch. Every sentence he uttered was rendered incomprehensible by a tortuous, mumbling mess of okays with the last okay invariably delivered in the form of a question for which no answer was required or sought. Okay?

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It got so all you heard were the okays. A smart-ass kid who sat behind me took to counting them — and one day shouted triumphantly when the poor man set a record high of something like 147 okays in the space of a 45-minute class period.

I quickly gave up on learning geometry. Despite getting undeserved 80s and 85s on my report card, the plain truth was I barely knew pi from Pythagoras. By mid-year it dawned on me that phony grades were one thing, but I could not fake my way through the New York State Regents exam, which was fast approaching in June.

I would’ve flunked had it not been for Richard Corn, a bright Mamaroneck High School senior who, for a few bucks, taught me the basics of geometry in a handful of one-hour tutoring sessions. Miraculously, I got a 70 on the Regents and was glad to get it.

This little episode of adolescence came to mind when I heard that the Regents tests may soon no longer be required for graduation in New York. Passing the three-hour exams has long been considered the Empire State’s good housekeeping seal of approval for meeting minimum standards of course proficiency. But a blue-ribbon panel has recommended that New York’s high school students be allowed the option to demonstrate their competence through unconventional methods, at this point only vaguely described in jargony terms such as “capstone projects” and “presentations.”

Phil Reisman
Reisman photo by Stefan Radtke

…I heard that the Regents tests may soon no longer be required for graduation in New York.

The New York Times pronounced it “one of the biggest education policy shakeups for New York in a decade.” If that is true, then it is fair to wonder who will benefit most — the students or highly paid consultants and Albany lobbyists in the vast Education Industrial Complex, some of whom have never stepped inside a classroom but insist they know how to impart knowledge better than teachers. How this plays out remains to be seen.

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No matter what, change is in the offing. And it looks as if it may be only a matter of time before the New York Regents exams, which date back to 1866, go the way of blackboards, detention hall, and Indian team mascots.

Predictably, battle lines have formed.

Proponents cite all kinds of studies to back up claims that traditional tests, like the Regents, are inherently flawed — and are particularly stacked against disadvantaged kids whose economic and cultural backgrounds are overlooked. Advocates passionately argue that poor students of color tend to drop out at a substantially higher rate in school districts that require exit exams.

In an interview with The New York Times last November, Alprentice McCutchen, a New Rochelle social studies teacher and a member of the blue-ribbon commission, used the word “draconian” to describe the Regents requirement. He said the state should meet “the needs of the 21st century.”

Critics have pounced, arguing that, ultimately, all this “imagineering” will lead to a lowering of educational standards and that students will be less prepared than ever to meet the real-life demands of the adult world. Some opponents detect what they call the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” implying that the new graduation requirements will be purposely less rigorous to achieve better results for minorities.

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Student photo Adobe Stock/ Aliza14, equations illustrations Adobe Stock/ Aapbr Caxapoba

Considering my misadventure with the Regents and ambivalence about high school in general, I hesitate to take a side in the education war — except to say it’s amazing how much geometry can be learned from a smart kid who is two years older than you. However, one thing does bug me about the anti- Regents side. According to the Albany Times-Union, a study showed that test takers got dramatically lower grades when the temperature reached 90° or greater — as if their minor discomfort justified doing away with the exams.

Okay, blame it on the weather. It’s June, okay? Stop daydreaming about the beach, okay?

Anyway, okay, I draw the line at this. Open a window if you can’t take the heat.

Sometimes in life you just have to suck it up.

Okay?

The opinions and beliefs expressed by Phil Reisman are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Westchester Magazine’s editors and publishers. Tell us what you think at edit@westchestermagazine.com.

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