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History of New York State Assessments

History of Regents Examinations: 1865 to Present

Preliminary Regents Examinations

On July 27, 1864 the New York State Board of Regents passed an ordinance that stated in part that:

"At the close of each academic term, a public examination shall be held of all scholars presumed to have completed preliminary studies. . . .To each scholar who sustains such examination, a certificate shall entitle the person holding it to admission into the academic class in any academy subject to the visitation of the Regents, without further examination."

In result, the first “preliminary” Regents Examinations were administered in November 1865 to eighth-grade students.

The purpose of these examinations was to provide a basis for the distribution of State funds allocated by statute to encourage academic education. The preliminary examinations continued, with many changes, from their initial administration in 1865 until June 1959. After that administration, they were replaced by a battery of Junior High School Survey Tests, which were discontinued in the late 1960s.

High School Regents Examinations

The first Regents Examinations for high school students were authorized at The University Convocation in 1876, when a resolution was adopted instructing the Board of Regents to "institute a series of examinations in academic studies and to issue certificates to students passing the same." The reason for instituting this series of high school examinations is described in the following quotation from a speech by Dr. John E. Bradley, principal of Albany High School, at the time when the high school examinations were instituted:

"The salutary influence of the primary examinations in stimulating both teachers and pupils to thoroughness in the acquisition of the elementary branches suggested the extension of the system to academic studies. It was argued that the Regents exhibited great solicitude with reference to the admission of pupils to high schools and academies, but took no interest in the kind of instruction they received there, or the amount of knowledge with which they graduated. If there was danger of neglecting the elementary branches and advancing schools prematurely, the danger of superficiality and misdirection in the range of secondary study was still greater."

The first high school examinations were administered in June 1878. About one hundred institutions in New York participated. The five subjects assessed were algebra, American history, elementary Latin, natural philosophy, and physical geography.

In 1879, after evaluating the results of the first administration, the Board of Regents approved a more comprehensive series of examinations for secondary schools to be given in November, February, and June each year, as follows:

  • Rhetoric and English composition
  • English literature
  • Algebra, through quadratics
  • Plane geometry
  • Plane trigonometry
  • American history
  • Science of government
  • Political economy
  • General history
  • Classical geography and antiquities
  • Physical geography
  • Physiology and hygiene
  • Zoology
  • Astronomy
  • Chemistry
  • Botany
  • Geology
  • Latin grammar and exercises
  • Caesar's Commentaries, books 1-2
  • Caesar's Commentaries, books 3-4
  • Virgil's Aeneid, books 1-2
  • Virgil's Aeneid, books 3-6
  • Greek grammar (except Prosody)
  • Homer's Iliad
  • Xenophon's Anabasis, books 2-3
  • Xenophon's Anabasis, book 1
  • French grammar and exercises
  • French translations
  • German
  • Natural philosophy
  • Mental philosophy
  • Moral philosophy
  • Bookkeeping
  • Drawing, freehand and mechanical
  • Eclogues of Virgil
  • Latin prose composition
  • Sallust's Catiline
  • Sallust's Jugurthine War
  • Cicero in Catalinam
  • Cicero pro Lege Manilia
  • Cicero pro Archiam

By 1911, the list of subjects being assessed had grown to include others such as Spanish, Hebrew, Italian, biology, economics, commercial arithmetic, commercial law, business writing, typewriting, harmony and counterpoint, history of music and acoustics, and history of education.

In 1927, the high school examinations expanded further to include comprehensive vocational homemaking, agricultural science, economics, and general science, and expanded once again in 1931 to include applied chemistry, comprehensive art, architecture, electricity, mechanical design, structural design, applied design, chemistry and dyeing, cloth construction, marketing and salesmanship, and costume draping. At the same time, examinations such as those assessing Latin and Greek grammar, Latin and Greek prose composition, etc., were being replaced by more comprehensive examinations.

Over time the trend toward comprehensive examinations continued in almost all subject areas, as changes in the Regents Examinations reflected changes in the high school curriculum. By 1970, the examinations being offered had therefore also changed considerably. During the 1970s, only six foreign language examinations were offered, one covering two years of Latin and the others covering three years of study in French, German, Spanish, Italian and Hebrew. Only one comprehensive social studies examination was offered, and the number of mathematics examinations had been reduced to three: ninth-year, tenth-year, and eleventh-year mathematics. There were still four examinations in the sciences and six in business subjects, but the examinations in art, music, vocational education, and agriculture had been discontinued.

From 1970 to 1988, there were few changes in the subjects offered. In 1987, the business examinations were discontinued. The following year, the comprehensive social studies examination was replaced by two examinations – one in United States history and government and one in global studies. Also during this time period (1979), the Regents Competency Tests (RCTs) were introduced. The RCTs were designed to assess basic proficiency in the areas of reading, writing, mathematics, science, and social studies for certain students. Originally, students who passed the RCTs and completed all required coursework could graduate with a “local” high school diploma instead of the Regents high school diploma. The local diploma was eventually phased out following the graduation of the class of 2015 for general education students, and instead all students graduating in subsequent years were required to pass a set of Regents Examinations in order to receive a high school diploma. The RCTs did remain as a “safety net” option for students receiving special education services until August 2018, when the RCTs were administered for the final time.

Recognizing the need for more robust curricula than ever before, the Board of Regents adopted a multi-pronged plan in late 1995 to raise the academic standards for all New York State students. This plan included the adoption of rigorous, uniform standards, the revision of the assessment process, enlarging schools’ capacity to support learning, and devising an institutional accountability system with public transparency. During the summer of 1996, the Board of Regents approved a set of Learning Standards in seven subject areas: ELA, Math, Science, Social Studies, Arts, Languages Other Than English, and Physical Education. In accordance with the Board of Regents’ mandate, the Offices of State Assessment and Curriculum and Instruction worked in tandem to align the Regents Examinations and school curricula with the new Learning Standards.

In early 2011, the Board of Regents revisited the learning expectations for students with the adoption the New York State P-12 Common Core Learning Standards (CCLS) in English Language Arts (ELA) and Mathematics. The CCLS were implemented in NYS schools at the beginning of the 2012-2013 school year. The New York State K-12 Social Studies Framework was adopted April 2014 and new P-12 Science Learning Standards were adopted in December 2016. Most recently, the Board of Regents adopted the Next Generation Learning Standards for ELA and Mathematics. These learning standards were the results of over two years of collaboration between the Department and hundreds of educators and parents.

Preparation and Administration of Regents Examinations

Preparation of Exams and Writing of Questions

In 1877, a committee representing the colleges and academies was appointed to work with the Board of Regents in planning the new assessment program. The Regents Examinations themselves have always been administered under the jurisdiction of school principals and the student papers rated by classroom teachers. At least as early as 1891, the Department sought feedback from NYS educators on the Regents Examination program. Forms for gathering suggestions and criticisms "relative to the character and scope of the examinations" were shipped with each set of examinations since the beginning. However, in the age of the Internet, this practice has been discontinued, and educators now have the ability to submit their comments directly to the Department online. These comments are collected and studied carefully to inform future test development.

Until 1906, the Regents Examinations were written by the Department staff. In that year, the Department established the practice of inviting committees of classroom teachers to come to Albany to write the examination questions. Each committee of teachers wrote the entire Regents Examination for the subject in which they were specialists during their meeting in Albany.

Objective questions first appeared in Regents Examinations in 1923. The first objective questions used were of the true-false, completion, and matching variety. In 1927, multiple-choice questions first appeared in the Regents Examinations. By 1940, multiple-choice questions were being used in examinations in English, social studies, Latin, the sciences, and agriculture. At present, all examinations include a combination of multiple-choice and constructed-response or essay-type questions.

With the advent of objective questions, a field testing (i.e., question try-out) program was introduced, and the members of the committees began to write objective questions in advance of their meeting in Albany so that the questions could be tried out on a sample of students to determine if they were appropriate for use on the actual examination. This change also involved the students themselves in the development of Regents Examinations. The first field tests were given in 1938, when a few hundred questions were presented to about a thousand students.

In 1958, the Department began to invite classroom teachers who were not members of the examination committees to write objective questions. With this change, the number of questions being field tested each year and the number of classroom teachers and high school students involved in the pretesting program increased considerably.

Questions for all Regents Exams continue to be field-tested prior to their inclusion on an operational exam. As of 2019, the Department has expanded field testing to include all 12 subjects currently assessed and administered field test forms to well over 400,000 New York State students.

Assembly of Regents Exams

Working with NYS certified educators, Department staff develop a "test map" of the key concepts to be tested in accordance with the Learning Standards. Educators then collaborate with Department staff to assemble the operational exams from pools of previously field-tested questions. Additional committees of educators review the exams several times over the course of development. They also work closely with examination editors to ensure that exam questions are grammatically correct and that no errors are inadvertently introduced over the course of development. Each Regents Examination is used only once, and after administration the exams are available for instructional purposes on the Department’s web site.

One significant change from past Regents Exams to present Regents Exams is in the scoring. Previously, 65% of the questions had to be correctly answered for a student to pass the exam, but this percentage-based scoring did not account for the difficulty level of the questions. Therefore, item response theory (IRT) scoring methods began to be used in the late 1990s. With IRT methods, the total number of points achieved by a student is converted to a scale score which is developed taking into account the difficulty of the questions on the test. This also makes it possible to ensure that the same level of knowledge and skill demonstrated results in the same final score, regardless of which administration of the exam is taken. To ensure fairness, scale scores are calculated for each separate administration of the Regents Exams so that students’ achievement of the Learning Standards is accurately measured, and no exam is harder or easier to pass from administration to administration or year to year.