When education leaders in New York state decided to require all students to pass five Regents' examinations to get a high school diploma, many observers worried about the consequences. After all, the Regents' exams were generally considered the most rigorous graduation tests in the nation. Logic suggested that—without some remarkable improvements—either the exams would become far easier or there would be a massive failure rate, especially in the big cities, where only one out of four students earned a Regents' diploma.
The early results suggest that the Regents' tests have become easier. A remarkable 96 percent of the state's high school seniors passed the English Regents' exam last January (compared to 65 percent in 1997). High school teachers in New York City complained to the New York Times that the new Regents' exams were a snap. One social studies teacher said of the global history exam that, "students who did no work all semester, who failed tests all year, passed this exam handily." An English teacher complained that teachers were required to give credit for essays that were "barely comprehensible." The state, she feared, was "legitimizing illiteracy."
Sadly, the Regents' exams now resemble the tests that are given to most American students in history and English, in which students are seldom expected to have any background knowledge.
In today's social studies tests, for example, students typically are directed to look at a cartoon and select a multiple choice answer that best describes the point of the cartoon. They are shown a simple bar graph and asked a multiple-choice question about the meaning of the graph. The graph may be about events in the 1920s, but it requires no knowledge of the period to read the graph. They may be given a long quotation from some historical figure and asked to explain it, which they can do without knowing anything about the speaker or his era.
Today's English tests never ask questions about literature, except for poems or short passages that are included on the test. Test writers cannot assume that students have previously read anything in particular. Few states require students to read any specific author or literary work.
Making the tests easier avoids political problems. Making tests content-free produces a population that has general skills yet is ignorant of history and literature. Neither is a good direction for a democratic society.
The New York example demonstrates that the political system will not tolerate a denial of diplomas to large numbers of students. That is why it makes little sense to set a single bar for all students. A single standard will inevitably be a low standard. What is needed is a credential system with multiple gradations, for example, a local diploma, a state diploma, and a diploma with honors, each representing different levels of academic achievement. Standards for each level should be both challenging and realistic, making it possible to set goals that inspire all students to increase their efforts without turning the tests into a snap for most students.