After flaws are found on Geometry Regents, SED plans for better vetting of math questions

by Cathy Woodruff

On Board Online • October 9, 2017

By Cathy Woodruff
Senior Writer

State education officials plan to beef up the process for vetting Regents exam questions after complaints propelled them to retroactively award credit for three flawed questions on the June Geometry Regents, regardless of how students answered them.

"We are improving on our process by putting in another layer of review," Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said at a September conference of the New York State Council of School Superintendents (NYSCOSS) in Saratoga Springs in September. "We are adding a layer of people to re-examine every question."

She also appealed for help rounding up enough math teachers to conduct the reviews.

"If you have a teacher who is really, really upset about something on the exam, tell us, and we will put them on our committee," Elia said. "I want those people who are the naysayers to be the reviewers. We'll take any you've got."

SED restored credit for any "wrong" or missing answers on three multiple- choice questions on the Geometry Regents this summer, responding to critics who included a student from Three Villages Central School District in Suffolk County. The department initially identified two problematic questions. In late July, officials also axed a faulty question identified by math whiz Ben Catalfo, 16.

The department determined that students who selected any answer - or no answer - for questions 14, 22 or 24 should receive credit because the questions did not have only one clear and correct answer. The move raised scores for an unknown number of students across the state.

In the tiny Salem Central School District in Washington County, 32 students took the Geometry Regents in June. Six students saw their scores rise from failing to passing with the additional credit, said Superintendent David J. Glover.

"They left school in June with a failing grade, and by August, they had a passing grade," Glover said.

SED has not yet released statewide Regents results for 2017, but more than 138,000 students took the Geometry (Common Core) Regents in 2016, according to SED's data site. Typically, students take the Geometry Regents at the end of 10th grade.

Some have said the wording of questions has been so challenging that the exams are testing literacy more than math. In letters to Elia, the Syosset school board has blamed efforts to stress "conceptual" understanding of geometry for part of the problem. Complex wording turns questions "as much into a reading challenge as a math challenge," the board wrote. As a result, students may be confused and overthink questions, "impacting their time, momentum and possibly even confidence."

Another issue is whether the design of the geometry exam is discouraging students from pursing higher math.

"There is no question that fewer kids will be able to use this as a platform for moving into Algebra 2," said Rockville Centre Superintendent Bill Johnson.

"This is a gateway for later math," said Lorna Lewis, superintendent at Plainview-Old Bethpage. "Why would you want to establish a gatekeeper? This is defeating the purpose of getting kids to higher levels of study."

Lewis is lobbying for invalidation of a fourth multiple-choice geometry question on this year's Regents exam, which she says tripped up good students. Only 35 percent of Nassau County students who scored at the highest level on the exam picked the answer considered correct, she said, adding that all the answers were correct.

Lewis and Johnson also say the passing grade (or "cut score") for the Geometry Regents is inconsistent with passing scores set for other math Regents.

SED data show that 37 percent of students who took the Geometry (Common Core) Regents last year scored in the lowest two levels. That compared with 28 percent of Algebra 1 (Common Core) and 26 percent of Algebra 2 (Common Core) test-takers who scored in the lowest levels.

"It's way out of line with what kids do on all the other Regents," Johnson said.

SED officials have defended the integrity of the geometry exam content and the technical processes for converting raw scores and setting cut scores.

"The passing standard for the Regents exam in geometry did not change," and the June 2017 exam "required the same level of knowledge and skills as did the seven previous versions of the exam, beginning with June 2015," according to a department memo.

Also, SED officials say each geometry exam form underwent "approximately 8-10 reviews encompassing as many as 40-50 educators." The department plans to add more New York-certified high school-level math teachers and SED math staffers to the review team in response to concerns.

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