A Few Reflections on the Regents

Two days ago, my 8th grade students had their last day of middle school. They also received their report cards and Regents scores. In my school, every 8th grader takes a math Regents exam. This year, I decided not to look at my students’ scores. I would find out at the same time they did: at the end of the school day during PM homeroom.

The last day of school was marked with lots of tears, jokes, and goodbyes. For me, the highlight was sharing the Instagram account for my cats. Throughout the day, the students were their silly selves, and it was great to connect with them one last time before summer.

This made it all the more disappointing to see the impact that receiving their Regents scores had during the final moments of school. Even though I still didn’t know their scores, it was terrifyingly easy to tell how they did simply based on their demeanors walking out of PM homeroom. Some students were clearly elated, some were disappointed, some were ashamed, some were questioning their worth and abilities, and some were simply coming to terms with their scores, good or bad.

It happens every year. Regents scores reconfigure my students’ relationships with themselves and others. Despite my constant messages not to let a single number define them, it’s hard for them not to allow their scores to shape how they see themselves as learners and doers of math. I’ve had students who were once confident in their abilities cry because they received an 89 (out of 100) instead of the 97 that their close friend received. I’ve had other students receive perfect scores, believing that such a score grants them authority and expertise over others. Even the teachers are affected. Once the scores came out, I saw an Algebra teacher talking about how she had “a low rate of students who achieved above mastery this year” and how she was going to spend the summer restructuring the curriculum. I, too, couldn’t help but attach scores to students once I found out.

In the end, it seems like no one wins. Students who receive lower scores (where students’ conceptions of “low” have been unduly influenced by our school’s and parents’ obsession with certification success) have their agency and self-worth chipped away. Meanwhile, the higher scores serve to entrench the beliefs held by higher-achieving students that their mathematical abilities boil down to their performance on standardized exams.

I must confess that in some ways I allow the prospect of the Regents exam to affect how I teach throughout the year. As one of my students pointed out in his mathography:

Mr. Peralta’s class was really fun in 6th grade because we played a lot of games during our double period. This year was less fun, but I understand because we had to do Regents prep.

However, I don’t consider getting high scores on the Regents exam a priority in my teaching practice and instead like to think I have different overarching goals for my students, three of which include:

1. Engaging with sophisticated mathematics.
2. Developing and nurturing their mathematical identities.
3. Becoming aware of and attending to issues of equity, access, and power when learning and doing mathematics with others.

I have conflicting feelings about my responsibility to ensure that students are prepared for the Regents. Inevitably, I’m left with questions about the compatibility of my goals as a math educator and my obligations with respect to standardized exams.

Must I choose one over the other? Is it actually true, as some would say, that if I focus on authentic learning, the scores will follow? Do I take that chance and disregard the Regents? If so, who bears the risks? Is it fair for those students who need the scores for scholarships and high school admissions? What do I owe the students? In what way is my thinking asset- or deficit-oriented?

In theory, it’s easy to say that I shouldn’t let standardized exams interfere with my teaching practice. But the reality of standardized exams is so deeply embedded in the culture of my schools and in the mindsets of students, parents, and staff that it’s gravitational pull is impossible to avoid. To anyone who says that Regents exams are simply neutral measuring devices, I simply can’t see how that can be true.