‘Heart has dropped out of reading literature,’ says professor who analyzed a century’s worth of English Regents exam

As Stanford University education professor Sarah Levine sifted through nearly 120 years worth of New York’s Regents exams, she found that the test’s evolution might be pushing students away from reading for fun. 

“The heart has dropped out of reading literature, I think, in part due to this kind of exam,” Levine said. 

Levine set out to explore how New York’s high school exit exams have changed over the past century — in terms of the racial and gender diversity of the writers behind featured passages, the genres of the test’s reading materials, and what sort of questions are asked of students. Her study, released last month, offers a lens on how the state has shifted its view on what students should know to have a good grasp of English and literature. That, in turn, shapes what is taught in classrooms across the state, and for Levine, the exam’s evolution suggests there may be less emphasis in school on reading literature for pleasure.

Her study comes as the state Board of Regents — which sets education policy and academic standards for New York —  is taking a big look at what students should be required to know before they earn their diplomas. As policymakers are grappling with what it means today to be college-, career-, and civic-ready, many wonder if students should still take the storied Regents exams. Most states no longer have those kinds of tests. 

The English Regents has been prepared by the state education department testing specialists and teacher examination committees for decades, a department official said. Teachers choose the reading passages and write test questions, reviewing both multiple times before finalizing the test.  

Levine found that the exam has evolved in many ways. Authors are more diverse. Passages have increasingly focused on nonfiction. There is far more weight placed on questions focused on interpreting a text versus just recalling what was written in it. 

But here’s a conundrum: While the focus on interpretation might suggest that the state wants students to think more analytically about what they’re reading, the test’s use of multiple-choice questions when asking students to interpret a passage works against that idea, Levine said.  

“The exam is still supporting the idea that there is just one right answer when it comes to literary interpretation,” Levine said. “And I think that’s the opposite of the way we want to be moving our students if we really want them to become engaged readers who enjoy what they’re reading and learn and grow from what they read.”

Moreover, the exam is structured in a way that doesn’t ask students to think too deeply about texts or passages they can personally connect to or about a writer’s craft, Levine believes. That, she said, often dictates a classroom approach that strips away some of the fundamental things that makes reading a joy for those who like it, she said.

There is a big place to talk about how a text or a writer does what they do,” Levine suggested. “How does a text manage to make you feel like crying? Or how does a text manage to make you feel like you really love a character or hate a character?”

Levine’s research also delved deep into the backgrounds of the authors featured on the test. It wasn’t until 1971 that a full passage by an author of color was included on the test. Until that year, included passages were written almost exclusively by white men, and in the years since, texts by writers of color tended to focus on race, Levine said. 

“There has been growth in the inclusion of authors of colors, both men and women,” Levine said. “But I would say the representation we are seeing in the Regents exam now is nowhere near the student body in New York state.”

A department official said there’s a “deliberate effort” to include passages by a “global and diverse variety of authors, time periods, genres, and cultural perspectives.” Its selection criteria can be viewed online.

Another major shift, she found, occurred around 2014, when the tests started becoming Common Core-aligned. The tests saw more than half of total points tied to passages based on nonfiction, and less weight of the test on fictional texts.

Yet, students had not once been challenged to examine the bias that could come with a nonfiction text, Levine noted.

For example, in her study Levine points to a 2003 multiple-choice question about a passage from an autobiography of Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart, asking who the big box retailer is concerned with when he uses the expression “satisfaction guaranteed” — customers, suppliers, employees, or investors. (Walton’s philanthropy, The Walton Family Foundation, is a funder of Chalkbeat.)

That question didn’t allow students to consider Walton an “unreliable narrator when it comes to describing his motives and concerns,” Levine wrote.

“To ignore potential biases in the rhetoric or even the data, to me, kind of misses the point of people being able to develop their own opinion based on the informational text they read,” she said. 

As policymakers take another look at the exams, Levine hopes they will scrap multiple-choice questions when they’re asking students to interpret passages and ask more questions about how a student perceives a piece of writing — focusing more on the “reader experience.” 

The state education department this week started the official process to review diploma requirements for New York’s high schoolers. The Board of Regents is expected to consider final recommendations in the fall of 2021.