School administrators across New York State are charging that the
Regents exam in mathematics offered this week was far too difficult,
and that a huge number of high school seniors may be barred from
graduating next week because they failed it.
Though many districts have not finished tabulating their scores,
superintendents, principals and math department heads are reporting
preliminary results that some described yesterday as "abysmal,"
"disastrous" and "outrageous."
"Kids have walked out of the exam in tears knowing they are
just not graduating," said one veteran assistant principal
in Brooklyn, adding that officials from other schools had been deluging
him with horror stories about the test. "One of the comments
I got from a colleague is that summer school is going to be very
crowded this year."
School officials are also crying foul about the Regents physics
exam, though that situation is not so dire because the test is not
a graduation requirement. E-mail bulletin boards for the state's
math and physics teachers have been bombarded with complaints about
the exams in recent days.
This is the second straight year that educators have criticized
the physics exam — in fact, a group of superintendents from
Westchester County and Long Island unsuccessfully sued the State
Education Department last year on the ground that the exam was an
inaccurate measure of skills. But while all agree that the math
exam introduced two years ago, known as Math A, is challenging,
they say the version administered on Tuesday crossed the line from
difficult to impossible.
Bill Hirschen, an Education Department spokesman, said department
officials had heard that "some of the success rates have been
lower," but that the state would not tally the scores of either
test until mid-July, the deadline for schools to report their results.
Mr. Hirschen later called back to say that because of complaints
about the math exam, the state would ask schools to report their
Meanwhile, Assemblyman Ryan S. Karben, a Rockland County Democrat,
asked Education Commissioner Richard P. Mills yesterday to immediately
investigate what he called "the aberrantly low pass rates"
on the math exam. In a news release, Mr. Karben said preliminary
reports in Rockland County showed passing rates of 8 percent to
50 percent, "far below the traditional rates."
The math exam, which became a graduation requirement in 2001, covers
algebra and geometry, along with some theoretical probability and
statistics. It has four parts, including 20 multiple-choice questions
and a number of word problems in which students explain how they
arrive at an answer.
Most students take and pass the exam as sophomores, after a year-and-a-half-long
Math A class, though those who struggle with math often put it off
until senior year.
While many math teachers hailed the new exam as appropriately rigorous
when it was introduced in 1999, some of those same teachers say
the version given this week was far too difficult, even for the
Some said it was short on algebra, which is the primary focus of
the Math A course, and heavy on difficult geometry questions. Some
questions were unnecessarily wordy, they said, while others had
more than one correct answer and used terms the students had not
been taught. Perhaps their biggest criticism was that the test packed
too many tasks into single questions.
"The failure rate is way out of proportion to what we would
have anticipated on the basis of how our kids did on previous exams,"
said William H. Johnson, superintendent of schools in Rockville
Centre, who led the lawsuit against the physics exam last year.
"We don't know what they are measuring anymore. It's an absolute
Dr. Johnson said that only 19 percent of the roughly 95 students
who took the math exam this week passed, compared with 78 percent
of the 336 who took it in January. While most of the students who
took the exam this week were "repeaters" who had failed
it at least once before, Dr. Johnson said he expected that at least
half would pass because they knew what to expect.
Complaints about this week's math and physics exams are the latest
in a series that have plagued the Education Department since it
stiffened graduation requirements in 1996. Students must now pass
Regents exams in English, math, American history, world history
and science to graduate. Educators have complained that the English
and history exams are too easy or scored too leniently.
In 2001-02, 68 percent of students statewide who took the Math
A exam passed it. In New York City, 50.8 percent passed. Students
currently need a score of 55 to pass the math test, and while the
passing score is supposed to rise to 65 in 2005, the Regents are
considering keeping it at 55.
One state education official said the complaints, especially from
suburban educators, were part of a growing reaction against standardized
testing. "They refuse to teach to the test," the state
official said. "They haven't done well for that reason."
Middle-class and wealthy school districts have actively protested
the rise in make-or-break tests, even urging their students to boycott
them. But urban educators were just as vehement in their criticism
yesterday. Those in New York City would not speak for attribution,
saying that Chancellor Joel I. Klein's office had instructed them
Merryl H. Tisch, a member of the State Board of Regents from Manhattan,
said that school officials were jumping to conclusions.
"We need to get some data in from a variety of schools before
people start to make ad hominem comments about the process and the
tests," Ms. Tisch said. "It is much too early to determine
the reliability and validity of them."