New York City high-schoolers’ scores on math Regents exams plummeted during the pandemic and have yet to bounce back, according to recently released state data.
Performance on the Regents tests, which serve as graduation requirements in New York, fell in every subject with the exception of U.S. History between 2019, the last year before the pandemic, and 2023, the data shows.
But the decline was steepest for city students in higher-level math courses. In Algebra II, proficiency rates for city students fell from 69% in 2019 to just 44% last year. In Geometry, 56% of city students passed the Regents test in 2019, but just 38% passed last school year.
The sharp decline is a stark indicator of the ongoing challenges the city faces in helping students recover from the academic impacts of the pandemic. Those challenges are particularly acute in math, where one course builds directly on the last and interrupted instruction can have ripple effects.
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City officials are betting big on a new curriculum overhaul, where high schools for the first time are required to use a shared math curriculum for Algebra I.
“Math Regents scores have been unacceptably low for the last several years, even before the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Education Department spokesperson Nicole Brownstein. “We launched our rollout of the Algebra 1 Illustrative Math curriculum to address dropping test scores.”
The curriculum mandate is currently in place only for Algebra I, but city officials have raised the possibility of standardizing curriculum for higher-level math courses as well. Illustrative Math, the mandated Algebra I curriculum, has drawn mixed responses from educators.
The Algebra I Regents exam is also undergoing a change this year to align with a new set of standards, and similar changes are on the way for the Algebra II and Geometry exams.
Brownstein said the Algebra I curriculum mandate is “just the first stage” of the Education Department’s work to improve high school math instruction and that “we are confident we will see rising Regents scores as a result.”
Pandemic Regents waivers help explain drops
There are likely several factors that drove the unusually steep decline in higher-level math scores.
In general, math scores fell more dramatically than reading scores across grade levels and districts. That pattern held true for New York City on the state’s third-to-eighth-grade state tests and the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which tests fourth and eighth graders.
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Bobson Wong, a veteran high school math teacher in Queens, said basic academic skills like knowing how to study, remember things, and ask for help – skills that are particularly important in memorization-heavy subjects like math – all took a hit during the pandemic.
But educators also pointed to specific features of New York’s high school Regents tests and the state’s pandemic policies that may help explain the size of the drops.
High school math, to a greater degree than other subjects, is cumulative – meaning it’s extremely difficult to perform well in Algebra II without having mastered Algebra I, said Wong.
Prior to the pandemic, many schools didn’t enroll students in Algebra II or Geometry courses unless they’d passed the Algebra I Regents exam. But during the pandemic school years of 2019-2020 and 2020-2021, when schools were partially or fully remote, Regents tests were mostly canceled and students could earn waivers by passing the course linked to the test.
As a result, when in-person instruction returned, educators said they noticed an unusual number of students enrolled in higher-level math courses who’d never really mastered Algebra I.
“I saw a lot of students in my Algebra II class waived through Algebra I and they didn’t know any algebra,” said Wong. “We didn’t really do anything to prepare them for a course like Algebra II. It requires so much knowledge of algebra and so much prior skill.”
During the pandemic, there were few good options to fairly assess students. State officials concluded that trying to hold Regents exams during the height of the pandemic, with schools offering varying levels of in-person instruction and students often struggling to engage in remote learning, would exacerbate inequality and unfairly block some students from graduating. Students in New York typically need to score a 65 or higher on five Regents exams to earn a diploma, and can receive an “advanced” diploma by passing more of the exams.
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More than 80% of New York City’s high school graduates in 2020, and nearly three-quarters of graduates in 2021, had at least one Regents exam exemption counted towards graduation requirements, a 2022 analysis from Education Trust-New York found.
But while many educators supported the additional flexibility during the pandemic, some have expressed concerns that students granted Regents exemptions or who passed courses because of added pandemic grading flexibility didn’t get the support they needed to catch up, and were instead moved into higher-level courses for which they were unprepared.
“We had to make some really important and responsive decisions,” said Tracy Fray-Oliver, the vice president at Bank Street Education Center and a former math official in the city Education Department. “But without ensuring the mastery in these courses that came before, you’re going to see these kinds of results.”
Passing the Algebra II and Geometry Regents tests isn’t a requirement for graduation because students can satisfy the math Regents requirement by passing only Algebra I. But the tests are required for an advanced diploma, and passing them can be an indicator of whether students are on track to take and pass pre-calculus and calculus.
Gaps between racial groups grew
Across the state, the Regents exam declines were also largest on the Algebra II and Geometry tests, although the drops in New York City were larger in both cases.
The gaps between racial groups also grew. The share of Latino students in New York City scoring proficient on the Algebra II exam, for example, was more than cut in half, from 58% in 2019 to 28% last year. Just 26% of Black students passed the Algebra II test last year, down from 55% in 2019.
The proportion of Asian American students passing the exam fell from 87% in 2019 to 74% this year, while the share of white students scoring proficient fell from 82% to 63%.
Fray-Oliver said she applauded the city’s efforts to overhaul high school math curriculum, but added that many of the skills students need to succeed in higher-level high school math courses are first taught as early as elementary.
Critics have long argued that the Regents exams aren’t effective ways of assessing what kids know and encourage rote learning at the expense of deeper understanding. That’s part of why a Blue Ribbon Commission recently recommended to the state’s Board of Regents that New York offer more pathways outside of the exams for students to earn graduation credit.
Wong said he expects the scores on the higher-level Regents tests to slowly bounce back on their own as the effects of the pandemic fade.
“I wouldn’t push the panic button and say we have to do all these interventions,” he said. “If the drop-off continues, that could be more of an issue.”
Michael Elsen-Rooney is a reporter for Chalkbeat New York, covering NYC public schools. Contact Michael at firstname.lastname@example.org.