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Inside the Brown Bag: The Test

By Peg Brown

The Year: 1962

The Setting: 8:45 am. A mid-June morning that promises to turn muggy and warm before noon. The large study hall across from the Principal’s office at Ogdensburg Free Academy (OFA). Two hundred plus open wooden desks anchored by black wrought iron legs to each other and the floor. A large raised platform at the front of the room, directly under the clock, with a teachers’ oak desk positioned squarely in the center. Large windows opened wide by teachers with long window poles (resembling spears) in anticipation of the rising temperatures both in and outside the room.

The Characters: OFA sophomores sitting in every other seat, each with two #2 pencils. Six or eight teachers as proctors walking around the study hall’s perimeter and up and down each aisle checking for any miscellaneous scraps of paper.

The Action: At exactly 9:00 am, Mr. Bill Plimpton, our world history teacher, ceremoniously breaks the seal on a large brown envelope, reaches inside and removes…The World History Regents Examination. There is no sound except the pop of the seal and an errant bird or two outside that doesn’t know enough to pause at this important moment. The moment is made even more dramatic because the same seals on the same type of envelopes are being broken in every high school in the State of New York.

As the proctors pass out the examination booklets, Mr. Plimpton scans the test. He looks a little concerned. We all find out why within seconds—the first ten questions on the Regents that year deal with architecture—identifying a Doric, Ionic or Corinthian column just for starters—followed by questions on Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque architectures. Topics we never covered in any of our weekly preparation sessions spent reviewing years of past Regents’ exams bound in a little yellow book. And this is just the beginning of the multiple choice section—we haven’t yet dared to see what the essay questions might require that we never discussed. We have three hours to figure it out.

Rhode Island, like most of the country’s public educational systems, is embroiled in a contentious debate about the place that “high stakes” standardized tests should have in determining a student’s readiness to graduate from high school. As we have all learned, the debate is complicated by issues of poverty, diversity, language barriers, learning disabilities, and serious behavioral problems—to name just a few of the considerations included in the discussions.

A recent letter to the Editor of the Providence Journal came from a fellow New York State graduate who had received his high school diploma in 1963. He too cited his experience with Regents examinations that were “given to validate proficiency in academic achievement. If you passed, you got a Regents Diploma signifying that you met state-expected standards.”

I don’t remember a lot of angst on the part of our teachers (my Dad was one) that the Regents results would somehow be used exclusively to evaluate their worth as instructors—an argument that is often included in today’s national debates.

I’m not sure that any of my class members or our parents ever gave much thought to whether the Regents system was fair, whether preparing all year to take the Regents exam was the best way to spend class time or whether their sons or daughters were being unfairly labeled as “Regents or Non-Regents” students, thereby somehow limiting all of their life options, including employment opportunities, education and economic status. In addition to the classification as Regents or Non-Regents, there were students enrolled in business courses that crossed the line between Regents and Non-Regents and vocational students who undoubtedly made more money than all of us liberal arts types who spent a life-time hiring them to fix everything.

I don’t remember the Regents with a lot of affection. The best part was that my Mother always made me a wine cooler (Mogen) David red wine, ginger ale and lemon), the night before each test to “calm my nerves.” I was also not the best test taker and most of the required Regents exams were in the math and science area, clearly not my strengths.

But the Regents exams were important; they qualified us for consideration for New York State Regents Scholarships (which, in my day, could only be used in-state). And they did earn us that Regents Diploma which was immediately filed and forgotten.

The exams also created some very special social moments. Several of our teachers would post the results of the examination in the back windows of the high school. We hung around those windows, rehashing how we might have done, until those lists were scotch-taped in place. Teachers used a code system and didn’t really list our names, but we always knew who got 100s on the math exams. I’m fairly sure that the posting of Regents results doesn’t happen today—because we seem to be reluctant to openly admit that some students do better than others. Our cumulative grade point averages for four years were actually listed by name in the yearbook. The only objection I had to that was that the football player who always copied my American History homework actually had a better class rank than I did.

By the way—that World History Regents—I scored a 68 (65 was passing and I’m sure my three point differential was a little subjective). It did not derail my life.

Author’s notes: Carol Siri Johnson published a History of the New York State Regents Exams in December 2009. She points out that “the first academic exit exam was administered in 1878 New York and it evolved into the controversial Regents subject matter exams.” The controversy in New York over the Regents extends to the current day. What is clear—the controversy that has been raging around the Regents Examinations for almost 140 years is far from over—and the debate over the role and place of testing will likely dominate a few more decades.