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NY High School Regents Exams: Do We Still Need Them?

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The NY High School Regents Exams began in New York State in 1876, one hundred years after our nation’s Declaration of Independence. While they have evolved, they continue to this day, testing New York high school students in most academic subjects.

Students who passed their exams received Regents certificates. This has also evolved. High school students who pass the required Regents receive a Regents diploma, which has some influence on the college admissions process.

The first Regents exams were: Algebra, American History, Elementary Latin, Natural Philosophy, and Physical Geography. First administered in June 1878, its purpose was to ensure that subjects were taught thoroughly enough that students moving on to more advanced studies after high school were well prepared.

Today, more than a century later, does it make sense for New York high schools to continue preparing students for the Regents exams? Are the Regents exams relevant or are they holdovers from an old school system? Let’s look at some of the pros and cons.

Cons. Some argue that they should be discontinued because they are no longer relevant. They point out that since most students now take the SAT or ACT tests, the Regents tests are no longer necessary to make sure students have learned enough to go to college.

Even more prevalent is the position that it is not uncommon for students to advance during the school year only to consume previous Regents exams and learn the course on their own in the final weeks before the June exams.

Pros. Let’s look at the other side of the argument, starting with the last point. Teachers undoubtedly prefer students to follow them closely throughout the year. However, an “A” grade on a Regents exam carries some weight. Somehow, between what the teacher did throughout the year and what the student did, it worked. The student has learned the required material and has met the Regents standards.

Many disagree that the Regents exams are no longer relevant. They continue to set high standards for every course. And, because everyone knows what the standards are, it is easier for teachers to meet these standards and it is easier for students to learn the material covered. Also, because standards have been stable for many years, textbook and review publishers have an incentive to produce high-quality, comprehensive books.

A related benefit of ongoing Regents exams is the standards themselves. The standards are independent of the school. Because of this, they cannot be compromised by students, teachers, or parents. So, for example, if a large group of students in a school get together and essentially boycott an issue, they know that the teacher cannot give in to their demands and change the standards.

In general, Regents standards and tests are a safety net for teachers and students. The advantages far outweigh the disadvantages. The Regents provide teachers with a basic curriculum. After that, teachers are free to be as ambitious and creative as they want. If you want to enrich the curriculum, that’s great. Similarly, if enough students are capable or ambitious, they can encourage the teacher to go beyond the curriculum and enrich the course to meet their needs and interests.

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