The first major winter storm of the year forced the New York State Education Department to take an unprecedented action this week: They rescheduled exams needed to graduate from high school. For the first time ever, the department announced it would allow districts to make up Regents exams missed due to inclement weather. The New York City department of education made an amendment of its own. Because of this week's storm, schools will grade two of their exams in-house instead of sending them to an outside scoring center.
The two decisions sparked discussion across the state about test security, the possibility of cheating and integrity. The controversy comes in a time when Common Core requirements and standardized testing laws are being scrutinized. Some argue the exams are too easily impacted by external factors teachers can't control, like students' test anxiety, home life and -- yes -- the weather.
Carol Burris, principal of South Side High School in Long Island, said her school is giving Tuesday's exams on Thursday. She said she supports the education department's decision but understands concerns about test security in the age of the Internet. "It's very likely that what was on the test could be discussed, and the test itself could even be shared" among students, Burris said.
Tuesday's tests at South Side haven't been touched. They're still in the safe, bound in bubble wrap, and nobody has looked a them. "We've done everything that we possibly can to keep the tests secure," Burris said. "We just have to hope that everyone will behave in an ethical and honorable way."
Common Core sets a national set of benchmarks for U.S. students, but is not federally mandated. It could save states money and increase critical thinking skills, according to Parents for Public Schools, but the "one-size-fits-all" plan could also hurt nontraditional students and make teachers focus too much on high-stakes tests. New York is at the forefront of the Common Core debate because it was one of the first states to test third- through eighth-grade students on the new requirements. The rollout has been rocky. In 2013, less than a third of students in New York public schools passed the tests, POLITICO reported. Scores increased slightly last year -- about 35 percent of NYC students passed the math exam, and 29.4 percent passed the English test, according to the New York Post.
Usually, New York's notoriously rigid Regents rules forbid rescheduling because developing multiple versions of the tests is too expensive. But this year, they made a "one-time" exception due to the scope of the storm, spokesman Tom Dunn said. Though the blizzard fell short of forecasters' expectations, it caused dozens of districts to cancel classes. New York City public schools closed Tuesday, and there were still 75 school closings and delays in the area Wednesday afternoon, according to NBC New York. Among them were the Brentwood, Islip and Quogue school districts in Long Island, which was hit particularly hard by the blizzard and saw more than two feet of snow.
State high schools had been scheduled to give Regents exams Monday through Thursday. Students must pass five Regents exams to graduate, and if they miss an opportunity to take a test they typically have to wait until the next round is given. After January, the next Regents window is in June, so New York City Parents Union vice president Sam Pirozzolo said he's happy the education department relaxed its policy. Rescheduled exams have to be given as closely as possible to their original test date, and all tests have to be finished by the end of the school day Friday, according to a news release from the New York State Education Department.
Regents scoring became an issue a few years ago when 7 percent of students earned the exact minimum score required to pass, leading some to think that teachers and schools may have altered students' grades, Chalkbeat reported. The state changed its policy in 2013 to prohibit teachers from scoring their own students' exams.
New York City now participates in distributed scoring where January and June tests are sent out to be graded, but the snowstorm has paused this practice. Burris said she trusts her teachers to do the right thing. But Pirozzolo, who also serves on Staten Island's community education council, said the temptation for schools to fudge scores is too great.
"Under these particular circumstances, the New York City Parents Union does not feel that schools should be able to grade their own tests," he said, adding schools should swap exams just to eliminate the possibility of cheating. "Why knowingly go down a road that's going to come back and haunt you?"