Do State Curricula and Tests Work? A Case History from the New York Regents

Those interested in what effects state curriculum standards and testing can have on student learning might study the history of the New York State Regents examination system, a long-standing example of a state-mandated curriculum and testing program. Though it is now undergoing a major revision toward a more performance-oriented model, the Regents system for years dictated a wide range of courses and content syllabi for high school students on two levels. The higher level, taken by about 35 percent of students, included at least eleven tests for the Regents diploma; students deemed less able had to pass at least six lower-level competency exams to receive a local diploma.

Though the exams were connected to a required curriculum, few demanded critical thinking, analysis, extended writing, or other performances, Linda Darling-Hammond observes in her recent book The Right to Learn (Jossey-Bass, 1997). “Students can complete the Regents curriculum without ever writing a paper of more than a few pages, reading a primary source in history, doing a research project, or designing a single science experiment,” she writes. “The curriculum is so tightly prescribed that there is little room for addressing student needs or more ambitious learning goals.”

Moreover, Darling-Hammond cites research showing that teaching to the rote-oriented state tests undermined the quality of teaching and learning in mathematics and science classrooms. “Although many students fail the tests,” she writes, “those who pass do not appear to learn more effectively than students had before the tests were installed.” As their performance on independent measures dropped, she notes, New York’s schools grew more unequal in the opportunities and resources they offered students as well. “The theory that high-stakes testing would drive systemwide reforms,” she concludes, “did not pan out.”