Reading a Regents Exam: Investigating the Test as Expository Text

Does Mark know that Wilson’s Fourteen Points was written at the end of World War I?  Does Stephanie know the ingredients of a polynomial?  Content.  It’s often the first item on educators’ minds as they design lessons and activities to prepare students to sit for the Regents examinations.  For Stephanie and Mark, however, content is likely the second or even third consideration they’ll make as they take a Regents exam.  Before a student recalls what content was learned in class, he or she must first read the exam, take stock of the directions and know what each assessment item demands.

Recently, New Visions’ Instructional Specialists and researchers analyzed the June 2014 Integrated Algebra I, Comprehensive English Language Arts, Living Environment, U.S. History, Global History and Geography Regents exams to shine a light on their construction so that we may better understand specifically what a test-taker encounters and must make meaning of. We hope that teachers, especially those who teach Regents courses, consider these findings, which are highlighted below, as they engage their students in Regents test prep in the coming days.

What does a test-taker read?  What are the text parts?  The major finding was startling: the exams don’t ask a whole lot of questions.  Despite the fact the exams direct students to “answer the following questions,” only 40% of the 272 item stems that were examined were written as questions.  Nearly just as many item stems were written as partial sentences, fragments or incomplete sentences that students must complete by selecting a response from a list of options.

This finding is significant.  Assessment research warns against using a partial sentence construction because it requires students to identify what the “question” would have been if it were a question, as well select the best “answer,” thereby increasing the cognitive demand and decreasing the item’s validity.  As Cynthia Brame from the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University explains, “a question stem is preferable because it allows the student to focus on answering the question rather than holding the partial sentence in working memory and sequentially completing it with each alternative.”

Consequently, educators should not be surprised if a student raises her hand and says, “I’m not sure what this question is asking!”  This assessment design, when paired with directions that synonymously refer to items as “questions,” is misleading, especially for those writers who struggle with the boundaries of a sentence.  Clearly, those struggling writers will be further challenged by fragmented, partial sentence constructions.  The preliminary analysis of the Global History and Geography exam found that students perform less well on selected response items written with partial sentence item stem constructions as compared to other item stem constructions that contain a statement or question.  For these reasons, the New Visions research team recommends teachers devote time to build students’ capacity to navigate sentence boundaries and fragmented item stem constructions.  For help in this area, teachers may want to leverage Judith Hochman's Teaching Basic Writing Skills’ activities on sentence boundaries.

In addition to the partial sentence constructions, the New Visions’ research team discovered that students must successfully navigate several distinct types of parts within the items.  In the Living Environment Regents exam, for example, 48% of item stems have four or five text parts, whereas 6% of Global History item stems have four or five parts (see graph below).  A single item stem can contain two statements, a table, another statement and then a graph, each of which are critical to understanding the item’s "ask," but may be overwhelming when first encountered.  As Common Core exams transition to more stimulus-based multiple choice items, our research team recommends educators spend time with students on identifying, recognizing and navigating different parts.

Finally, the research team assigned each Regents exam item stem according to the five expository text structures.  The team decoded each exam item based on the dominant expository pattern expressed.  By and large, item stems are written predominantly as description text (42%) and cause and effect text (34%).

Graphic organizers can be tremendously helpful for identifying text features and recognizing what additional information is needed to “complete the story” of an assessment item.  This technique is one teachers may leverage to empower students to be structurally-aware readers and test-takers.

For example, the following item stem from the June 2014 U.S. History Regents Exam may be deconstructed into the cause-effect graphic organizer, which could help readers identify what piece of information is necessary to complete the item’s “story.”

In conclusion, the Regents exam is comprised of highly complex pieces of text, however, its complexities are not always a result of meeting rigorous content standards.  Below you will find a summary of the key recommendations from the New Visions research team:

  • If readers recognize the different types of text structures, they will be better able to comprehend the text.
  • If test-takers know what question the item poses and know what to do to respond, test takers will be equipped to answer, even when they do not know the content.
  • If testers remove the barriers created by unnecessarily complex item stems, they will be better able to accurately assess a student’s content knowledge and skills.
  • If teachers and students make the shift to reading the exam, they will think differently about each of the items; they will become structurally aware and be text-empowered to know what to do to respond.

Below you will find an overview of the resources highlighted in this blog, as well as links to the New Visions curriculum projects, which include Regent prep materials:

Resources Highlighted

New Visions Curriculum Projects

The goal in disseminating this research is to inspire timely action, to empower students and ultimately, to improve student success on the exam.  A sincere thank you for the volunteer efforts of the New Visions research team: Chris King (West Bronx Academy Living Environment teacher), Elizabeth Chatham (NVPS Living Environment Instructional Specialist), Katie Jacobson (Bronx Leadership Academy II Chemistry teacher), Joyce Adgate (NYCDOE Math Instructional Specialist), Marina Galazidis (NVCHS ELA Instructional Specialist), Michelle Lewis (NVCHS Global History Instructional Specialist), Aruna Patel (NVPS U.S. History Instructional Specialist) and Tim Lent (NVPS Global History Instructional Specialist).

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