I’ve got two days of school to go, and elated as I can’t help but me with the long-awaited summer vacation, I am ending the year – my 11th as a teacher – feeling unsettled and unsure. Here’s why:
Reason #1: Regents Exams
All 168 of my students took Regents exams this year (Geometry and Algebra 2), and I spent three days grading Geometry exams at a large grading site – three days grading the same 4 questions on papers from other schools (stultifyingly dull, by the way).
On Friday, June 16th, the day that both exams were administered, I took both exams, working carefully through all questions, particularly the extended responses. I noticed a few things:
- The exams took a long time to finish – the second portion of the Geometry exam took me over 30 minutes to complete (I usually allow my students 5-8 times my own work time on an exam). At 4:15 last Friday, there were many Algebra 2 students working when time was called.
- The wording multiple choice on the Algebra 2 multiple choice questions was tricky – I worked on the exam with two other veteran Algebra 2 teachers, and we debated several of the questions extensively.
- Several of the Geometry multiple choice questions also required a substantial amount of effort to clarify the intent of the question; the acceptable responses to two questions were eventually modified: one question had two correct answers, and on one question, ALL FOUR CHOICES were deemed correct.
As I graded exams, there were many papers which showed solid evidence of student reasoning and understanding, and wherever possible, points were awarded when this was the case. But there were also many blank papers, and papers on which the work only showed evidence that the student was not prepared for the exam, or lacked sufficient understanding of the big ideas in the course to even be sitting for the exam.
Grading for the exams has been completed (at least for my school it is). My Geometry results were predictably disappointing – I knew this going in to the test, and given the opportunity to teach the course again, I already have ideas in mind for how to better support my students throughout the term. The Algebra 2 results were very good – 93% of my students passed, including several who had barely passed the course. Given the low ‘cut scores’ (the raw score with which the passing scaled grade of 65 is earned), the Geometry debacle is embarrassing and the Algebra 2 success is no surprise. I’m glad it’s all behind me for this year, and that I able to pass four Algebra 2 students based on their Regents grades.
I don’t know the figures, but I imagine it costs in the millions of dollars to develop and administer the Regents exams. I imagine (I hope) that a lot of time and thought goes into how the questions are assessing the standards we have been told to teach in each course.
So, why, why, why are questions not vetted properly enough that not one, but TWO need to be thrown out after CLASSROOM TEACHERS have had a chance to look at them? Why are questions not properly enough vetted that their intent is debatable among a group of teachers?
And what does it say about these exams (all three math Regents exams) that they can be passed by answering only 55-70% of the multiple choice questions correctly? (To this teacher, it says that students can be ‘trained’ to pass the exam based on the ways in which the Board of Regents constructs multiple choice questions.). What does this say about how New York State wants teachers to teach high school math?
And the biggest question in my mind that how an exam can be justified as assessing mastery of course content if a raw score of just over 30% is considered passing? Does the Board of Regents think this is the best that students in New York state can do? Or do they think this is the best teaching of which their teachers are capable?
Something is so seriously wrong with this picture that I wonder, as I reflect on my practice this past year as well as on my students’ performance, what modifications I should make for next year. I love teaching math because its patterns and provable truths are beautiful, and that the perseverance and logical thinking required to master the content are skills which build intellect and broadly applicable critical thinking skills. But my students live with Regents grades on their transcripts (and many of my students go on to apply to New York state and city schools, which look at these grades), and I live with them on my performance evaluation. At this point in my career, I am not necessarily worried about this portion of my evaluation, but it behooves me (as I’ve said before in this blog, many times, I know) to provide my students with the best possible test preparation of which I am capable.
But there is something so seriously wrong with this picture that I don’t know how to proceed next year; I am unsettled and angry. I believe(d?) in the Common Core standards , and the big ideas which governed their crafting, the progressions of major topics through the grade bands, and the ‘inch wide, mile deep’ philosophy. I was a NYC Department of Education Common Core Fellow, and spent three years reviewing allegedly re-aligned textbooks, developing tasks, and creating professional development. But overall, the implementation and roll-out of the standards in the state and New York City has been rushed and ill-supported in terms of resources, and after all the professional development, and textbook review, and engageny.org lesson-writing, New York has decided to modify the high school content standards, opting out of the national Common Core Learning Standards. And has created some exams that, in this teacher’s view, do not summatively assess the courses for which were designed.
So that’s Reason #1 I’m unsettled, and it’s taken an entire post. So Reason #2 will follow in the next few days. But here’s a preview:
Reason #2: Philando Castile