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Instead of eliminating global studies exam, state could revamp it

ALBANY — Months after considering a plan to stop requiring students to pass a global history final exam in order to graduate from high school, state education officials are instead contemplating overhauling the test.

Under a proposal that the officials presented before the Board of Regents today, the state’s two-year high school global studies course would be divided in two. The first year would cover “foundational skills” economics, world history, geography, and civics and culminate in an end-of-course exam.

The second year would focus on themes and trends across world cultures and be aligned to more rigorous standards that the state is developing for social studies instruction. Only the material from the second year would appear on a Regents exam required for graduation.

Adjusting the current exam to conclude the second course would cost between $500,000 and $1 million, officials said. Creating a new test for the first course would cost more.

The proposal is the second one floated about the global studies exam in less than six months. Back in April, state education officials asked the Regents to allow them to make the exam optional in order to let students take other courses instead, particularly math and science classes that are seen as increasingly important in preparing students for college.

That proposal has been tabled for now, after social studies educators and some Regents balked at the idea. The exam, which covers about 2.5 million years worth of world history over the span of freshman and sophomore years, has the lowest pass rate of any of the five Regents tests currently required for graduation, and some critics said the state wanted to make it easier for students to graduate at the expense of a core subject.

In fact, state education officials said today, they were just trying to figure out how to free up space in students’ schedules for more math, science, and technology coursework.

“The only way to do that was to look at the overall graduation requirements,” said Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch.

The new proposal is part of the same conversation about college readiness, state education officials said. By consolidating the portions of the course that develop critical thinking and research skills, “what we’re trying to do is improve the global history subject,” Tisch said.

Plus, the change could lay the groundwork for reducing the global history requirement to a single year in the future, a move that education officials did not say was in the plans but which would open students’ schedules for an additional course in another subject.

Most Regents offered positive feedback after hearing about the proposal. “I think it’s a reasonable step and a positive step to take now,” said Jim Tallon, who represents Binghamton on the board. “This would be an important step forward.”

The global Regents test is the only one that is based on two years worth of material, a distinction that officials said contributes heavily to the higher failure rates.

“The reason they’re being held up by the the exam is because youngsters are being tested at the end of a two-year course of study,” said Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch. “Anyone who knows anything about youngsters at that age knows that it’s really difficult for them to study a subject for two years and then take a summative exam.”

Stephen Lazar, a city high social studies teacher, said the principles behind the proposal represented a small step forward because the course and exam as they are currently designed require teachers to put “drill and kill” before pushing students to develop a conceptual understanding of history.

Lazar said he thought the current tests are flawed but not necessarily harder to pass. In his experience, he said, a few weeks of cramming and practice exams can prepare students to pass a test that is supposed to complete two years of study. “It doesn’t assess any understanding of history,” he said.

But Lazar said he would remain skeptical until he sees the exams to know that they really would test the more sophisticated skills. The proposal, Lazar said, “sounds better, but show me the test.”

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