Please review the illustration below and answer the question that follows.
Question from New York State Regents Sample Earth Science Exam, January 24, 2013.
Now pretend that your future college and employment options depend on your ability to answer said question (and 84 others like it).
And while you're at it, pretend that you are 14- or 15-years-old. And that you have an autism spectrum disorder. Or dyslexia. Or haven't had breakfast. Or your parents just divorced. Or whatever else might be going on in the life of a 15-year-old.
Can you answer the question?
I can't. Even if I don't imagine all the other variables in this thought experiment, I can't answer the question correctly.
In fact, I can't answer most of the questions on the 9th grade New York State Earth Science Regent's exam.*
Has that hampered my prospects in life? Perhaps. I'm not an astrophysicist. I'm not a geo-engineer. And I'm not a meteorologist. I'm okay with that. I'm a tenured university professor at a highly-respected university in New York City. I've won numerous federal grants. I'm the author of a well-received book in my field from a major university press. Most people who know me think of me as rather well-educated and knowledgeable.
Usually I wouldn't share this information about myself, but it seems relevant to these tests as some metric of educational attainment.
But if I were 15-years-old today, there is a good chance that I would not earn a high school diploma in New York State. Well, let me clarify that. I might earn what's called a "local diploma" in New York State.
Anywhere else (as far as a I know) a high school diploma is a high school diploma. But in New York State we have an educational caste system where some kids earn a "Regents diploma," some earn what's called a "local diploma," and some earn an "IEP diploma."
To earn a Regents diploma you have to earn at least 65 points on five Regents exams: English, Math, Global History, American History, and one science (either Earth Science or Biology). To earn a local diploma you have to have 55 or more on these four exams. Without that, you either don't graduate or, if you have an IEP, you can earn an IEP diploma. You can go to a private college with a local diploma, but you can't go to the New York State University (SUNY) system, the most affordable schools in the state.
After a year of work toward passing these exams, our girl earned a 64. That is, she missed a regular passing score by one point. One point.
She had a near perfect score on the lab section of the exam: 15/16. She routinely earns A's and B+'s on in-class exams that cover the same material. Her teacher said this exam just had too much vocabulary for her.
I was thrilled for her that she had passed, even with a low pass. Her father is heartbroken and angry that she didn't earn at least 75 points since she does much better than that in her course work.
For two weeks after the exam scores were in, we spoke, and argued, and spoke, about almost nothing else: he wants her to study all summer with him and retake the exam in August. I want her to have a summer break, revel in having passed it (4 of the 39 students in her class did not earn even a low pass), and start to look a the vocabulary for the upcoming Biology and Global History exams.
I understand his position: he thinks that these exams and the information therein actually matter in life. He thinks it's a worthy goal to pass these exams with high scores. And he thinks letting her get by with a low pass is giving up on her and her future.
And I think these exams are unnecessary and damaging hurdles that destroy a natural love of learning and replace it with a desire to pass, to score, to win – and often, to cheat a system that is unfairly rigged against our kids. I think they contribute to the single most annoying question I get in every class I teach: "Will this be on the test?" I think these exams are destroying our kids' lives, turning them into test-taking machines. Having her study for these exams is, in my mind, nothing more than a necessary evil.
So we don't agree. We won't agree. We've agreed to disagree. We haven't decided what to do: whether she will retake the exam in August or not.
What I do know is that as a society we seem to love our educational standards more than we love our kids if we are willing to subject them to this adolescent rite of passage called standardized testing.
So-called primitive tribal societies would incise their young people's skin with magical markings and rub in ash to create the raised welts of scarification, or send them into the forest to fend for themselves to mark the passage to adulthood, reincorporating them into the group when they healed or returned from their quest.
Here in New York State we are somewhat more subtle. The scars we create are invisible: we mark our children's neural pathways with specialized technical knowledge that will likely be of no actual use to them, send them into the ordeal of testing arena, and then reincorporate them into a stratified society based, in part, on how well they perform this task.
We can opt out of this rite of passage, but what sort of future can we imagine for our girl if we do? That is the question we have pondered for the past three weeks. What do you think about high stakes exams for our kids, ASD and otherwise? What have you done about such tests?
* The answer for the exam question, if not to these bigger questions, is "D. White dwarf." You can look at this exam and any of the other archived Regents exams at: http://www.nysedregents.org/