01/25/2012 04:52 pm ET Updated Mar 26, 2012

Educating for Democracy: Dumbing Down the English Regents

It's hard for me to recall the English Regents I took over 50 years ago although I remember our class did little, if any preparation for it, certainly not during class time. However, I know that we had to read a number of passages with a fairly complex vocabulary, do multiple choice vocabulary identification, and use a level of verbal sophistication that prepared students who passed the exam for college-level work.

Even fifteen years ago, the Regents English exam was fairly demanding, according to a source who has been grading these exams for many years. It was a two-day exam that stressed critical thinking. There were four essays, each 250 words long. The first was based on a passage of expository writing that was read to the students twice; they were expected to write notes on what they had been read in order to answer ten multiple choice questions and write a five-paragraph essay on the read passage. In the second exercise, the students needed to read a long passage centered on a contemporary issue such as global warming which included a graph that would be used to incorporate facts into another 250-word essay.

On the second day of the exam, the students read an excerpt from a short story and a complete poem on which they would be required to write a comparison and contrast essay. The final element in the exam was based on a literary quotation from which students were required to relate two fictional works which they had read previously and write a literary analysis connecting them to the quotation.

While today Mayor Bloomberg is pressuring administrators to pressure teachers to "get the graduation numbers up," the level of learning necessary for a student to pass the English Regents has gone way down. Instead of a two-day exam as in the past, the latest test has been reduced to one day. Most of it consists of multiple choice questions and the single essay required is based on a simple quotation and the directive is to use it to write about any work of literature in which two characters see the same situation differently.

It is no wonder then that regardless of the graduation rate, the proportion of students receiving a high school diploma from New York City public high schools who are considered "college ready" is a woeful 23%.

There are many profound and complex reasons why students in New York City and nationwide seem to have so much trouble learning so that they can do college-level work. It is perplexing that we now have a serious shortage of STEM students who are needed if the United States is to maintain a competitive position in the development of new technologies in order to keep up with the rest of the world. Although poverty is an extremely important element in limiting the opportunity for young learners to reach their potential, and more money for impoverished schools can improve learning, I believe that the fundamental problem is far deeper than that and is lodged in a culture that only values learning if learning produces monetary value.

The anti-intellectualism that is popular in political and social discourse in this country when referring to the "effete European culture" that puts a high premium on learning and our instant gratification mentality that stems from our over-commercialized society discourages and disparages the kind of hard, persistent, and concentrated work that produces good learning, not just test taking.

If by dumbing down the English Regents the Bloomberg Administration thinks it can fool the public into believing that higher graduation rates are a sign of an improving educational climate, it is ultimately fooling itself. If this trend continues and teachers are pressured to create "numbers" instead of educating students, we will be playing the same shell game that workers in the old Soviet Union played, only this would apply to education: "We'll pretend to teach and they'll pretend to learn."