Ithaca, N.Y. — For 121 years, New York State high school students have taken the most rigorous and successful standardized tests in the nation -- the Regents' exams. These tests, the oldest administered statewide in the country, stand as models for the many states scrambling to find testing instruments to gauge the quality of curriculum and learning in their schools. Close to $1 million will be spent during the 1985-86 school year in New York to create, administer, and score some 600,000 copies of 50 exams in English, social studies, foreign languages, math, and science. The state Education Department sees it as money well spent. Most students and teachers seem to agree.
``Studies correlating freshman college grades and Regents' exams scores show that they are an excellent predictor of college success,'' says Winsor Lott, director of the department's Division of Educational Testing.
The reason, he explains, is that the syllabus -- as well as the exam -- for each course tested is developed by a committee of college authorities and classroom teachers at the state level. The exams, written under the supervision of the Board of Regents, the governing body of the state Education Department, were originally created to account for the legislative appropriations that constituted the first state aid to public education.
It was not long before the state's college admissions officers saw the usefulness of such scores for determining those students prepared to do college-level work. Regents' exams have been used in this selection process ever since.
These so-called Regents' courses are the most difficult of those offered in each subject area.
``Over the years I found the state syllabus to be a consistently rigorous one,'' says Ayrton Johnson, a chemistry teacher who recently retired after 25 years. If he began the year with 125 students, only 95 might be left at exam time.
A common complaint is that Regents' exams dominate the curriculum. ``You can't get away from it,'' says one teacher.
Yet others contend there is enough time to cover additional material if the teacher really wants to. ``It's a red herring,'' says Mr. Lott. ``Good teachers are able to teach kids a full, rich course of study without worrying about the Regents' exams, because they know the exams are fair, that they've taught the recommended material and beyond.''
The exams are largely seen as fair because both teachers and students know exactly what must be learned to do well. ``I like them a lot better than the finals teachers make up, because you know what to study for,'' says Ruth Reinitz, a high school senior. Students know how to study for them, too. Teachers devote several weeks for review, using copies of old exams and grading keys. Additional review can be given to disadvantaged students and accommodations made in how the test is administered to those w ith learning disabilities.
There are no surprises. The format of the exams stays the same, and the content as well, since the Regents' syllabi are revised only every 10 years, and then not radically. While some teachers, particularly in urban areas, are calling for major revisions that would make Regents' courses easier, others maintain that this uniformity over time is crucial.
``In the last 10 years courses are being offered for high school credit that are little more than glorified sixth-grade arithmetic,'' says math teacher Bill Halton. ``It's only the Regents' exams that keep standards from slipping even further.''
Yet Mr. Halton says Regents' courses are becoming increasingly difficult to teach. ``I get a lot of resistance from students who don't want to work so much harder than they have to in non-Regents' courses.'' Clearly the system puts pressure on teachers.
Director Lott sees the exams as an incentive. ``They make weak teachers attend to the task,'' he says.
Others say that weak teachers ``teach for the Regents','' devoting up to 21/2 months for review, yet citing their students' scores as proof that they are good teachers.
There may be more of this type of review to come. One part of the educational reform that the Board of Regents is undertaking will require that comprehensive assessment reports comparing statewide scores with those of each teacher, school, and district be presented publicly to school boards each year. What has heretofore been a tool for evaluating students' knowledge may soon be used to evaluate teacher, school, and district performance as well.
Although low scores on the Regents' exams don't preclude a student from going on to college, there is considerable prestige associated with doing well.
Increased national concern for basic skill learning as well as a uniform testing system may prompt other states to follow suit. California and North Carolina are particularly interested. Should they adopt a similar system, there will be a lot more students to echo the sentiments that student Daniel Fireside expressed on the eve of his exam: ``I'm counting every second till it's over!''