Regents High School examinations, sometimes shortened to The Regents, are mandatory in New York state through the New York State Education Department, designed and administered under the authority of the Board of Regents of the University of the State of New York. Regents exams are prepared by a conference of selected New York teachers of each test's specific discipline who assemble a "test map" that highlights the skills and knowledge required from the specific discipline's learning standards. The conferences meet and design the tests three years before the tests' issuance which includes time for field testing and evaluating testing questions. On July 27, 1864, during the midst of the American Civil War, the legislature of the pro-Union state of New York passed an ordinance creating the Regents examination system. This ordinance included the following provisions for assessment of students: "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."
A careful reading of the ordinance illuminates much about the legislature’s intent in establishing the Regents examination system. The central idea of the legislation was to create an educational control system that could be used to regulate the flow of funds to the well established academy system of schools that existed throughout the state of New York. This goal would be accomplished by: 1) creating a Regents examination system, which would measure student achievement through process of examination; and 2) creating a new and privileged class of students in the secondary schools of New York. The new class of students would be called the “academic class,” and those students who qualified for admission to it by sustaining a process of examination would be known as “academic scholars.” Academic scholars, and the institutions with which they were affiliated, would receive recognition and privilege under New York’s school funding formula.
The focus of the ordinance was on assessing student achievement in the preliminary, or elementary curricula. In essence, the examinations were being positioned in the primary role of gatekeeper between the primary and secondary schools of the state of New York. The need for a gatekeeper examination system was due in part to the state’s 1864 school funding formula, which allocated public funds to private academies based on criteria that included the number of enrolled students. Typically, the academies used money distributed from the state literature fund to offset operating expenses, and any expenses in excess of funds received from the State were passed on to students and their families in the form of “rate bills.” Under this system, individual academies could realize economic advantages by lowering academic standards and enrolling less qualified students. In 1864, during a time of war, the New York legislature became concerned about this issue of who was and who was not qualified to be enrolled in the common, mostly private academies of the state and also in the rare, public high schools of the state. The timing of the legislature’s concern and actions in 1864 may also have been influenced by political interests associated with: 1) the military’s need for young men of fighting age; and/or 2) a period of fiscal austerity in school funding, both of which were related to the ongoing Civil War.
As a state sponsored quality control system, the Regents examination system has influenced the micro-level practices of New York’s public schools since 1866, when the first Regents examinations were administered. Of significant importance, this Regents examination system has detailed records of assessment and curricula practices throughout its existence. The consistency with which Regents examinations have been administered is also important. As historical artifacts of public education in the state of New York, these consistently administered Regents mathematics examinations provide opportunities for detailed analyses of historical trends in the assessment practices of different curricula in the publicly funded schools of New York State.
The first Regents examinations were administered in November 1866. In 1878, the Regents examination system was expanded to assess the curricula taught in the secondary schools of New York. From the original five exams (algebra, Latin, American History, natural philosophy, natural geography), the State Education Department expanded the Regents Exams offerings to forty-two tests in 1879; tests were administered in November, February, and June. Throughout the 1920s and into the 1930s vocational education Regents Exams were approved and administered. These included, but were not limited to, agricultural science, costume draping, and salesmanship. By 1970 the number and types of Regents Exams changed to reflect the changes in high school curriculum: vocational exams were discontinued, and the sheer number of exams were either dropped or consolidated as the curricular emphasis trended toward comprehensive examinations rather than the singularly focused tests of the past. Today there is a distinct mixture of comprehensive style exams (English Language Arts, and Foreign Languages) and the “older” singular style exams (Social Studies, Sciences, and Math).