Riverhead Central School District Trustee Christopher Dorr at the Jan. 10 school board meeting. Photo: Alek Lewis

Some Riverhead Board of Education members are hoping to change the school district’s policies on grading to eliminate the weight Regents exams have on a student’s final course grade.

Regents exams are statewide standardized tests in core high school subjects that students must pass to graduate.

The change would make permanent the “do no harm” policy put into place for last year’s June Regents exams. Current school board policy counts Regents exam scores as 20% of a student’s grade for classes that require the passage of a Regents exam to graduate, with exceptions for students with disabilities, English language learners and when an exam has a mistake. Some parents last year urged the passage of the “do no harm” policy citing the continuing stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic on students. 

Trustee Christopher Dorr, who has previously advocated to make the policy permanent, brought up the topic during the board’s regular meeting Tuesday night. “I was disappointed to see the faculty has decided to stay with the 20% weighting on Regents scores. I don’t think this is fair, to weight a three-hour exam the same as 10 weeks of instruction,” Dorr said.

Dorr, who works as a data specialist at Nassau BOCES, said he has been changing the scores of schools across Long Island reflecting similar policy changes. He said another issue with the 20% weight is that the exams are graded on a scaled scoring system, which weighs scores based on the difficulty of questions, rather than a percentage-based system.

Dorr also claimed that the State Education Department recommends against using Regents exams in grading policies. The education department, in a memo in May extending its special appeal policy, said it leaves the decision on weighting the Regents grades to individual school districts and “does not require or recommend” the policy.

“I asked for rationale on this and I was told that it was to keep the students interested in the classes — that they wouldn’t take [the exams] seriously,” Dorr said. He said in an interview yesterday he received the answer from district administrators. “These exams are required to graduate, they’re going to take them seriously or they’re not going to graduate,” he said.

The January Regents exams are being administered at the end of the month; no “do no harm” policy for the exams was adopted by the board.

Dorr also said the weight of the exams on students could also cause them to lose scholarships, using his daughter, who was a candidate for sports scholarships, as an example.

Superintendent Augustine Tornatore responded to Dorr’s comments: “I know there was many conversations between administrators and staff members regarding the current status in our district,” Tornatore said. “I think the most prudent way to move forward is to form a committee who could really explore and look further into it. Because I would be remiss if we made a decision right away without really looking at the ramifications into that.”

Tornatore said that Executive Director for Secondary Education, Grants and Student Outcomes William Galati will lead the committee to review the policy. Galati said in an interview on Thursday that the committee will be made up of administrators, faculty, students and parents. He hopes the committee will have a recommendation to the board in a month or two, he said.

Galati declined to give an opinion on the issue of whether or not the Regents scores should be weighted. “As an administrator, we support our district policy and we abide by our district policy,” he said.

Trustee Virginia Healy said students have suffered learning loss because of the pandemic and suggested that the board could reduce the weighting for Regents exams on subjects where students have seen a dramatic decrease in performance, such as Algebra and Geometry. 

She said that the policy is a matter of “equity,” invoking language used by the State Education Department

Dorr incorrectly stated during his comments that the faculty decided the weighting policy of the board. The Board of Education adopts policies related to grading and last adopted a change to the Regents weighting policy in Sept. 2018.

“The faculty do have an opinion on whether or not it should count or how much it should count, but that again would be our opinion,” Gregory Wallace, president of the Riverhead Faculty Association, said in an interview yesterday. “So to summarily blame the faculty for this board policy is baseless.”

Wallace said reviewing the policy “coming out of COVID and with all the pressures on students with learning loss, it’s a worthy conversation.”

“We’d love to give input, because we’re in the trenches. We’re doing the work with the students. We are educators, and we should play a role in that conversation,” he said.

Dorr said in an interview today that the issue of the Regents exam weighting has been tackled by the district “at least two or three times” since he has been on the board.

“And they come back the same way, that if we don’t have it this strong the kids won’t take it seriously,” he said.

Dorr said that he doesn’t know whether he has a majority of the board’s support. Although Dorr was irritated with the decision to form an ad-hoc committee to analyze the policy, he said in an interview that he would rather go through the process of getting a recommendation from a committee than trying to ram a policy change through the board without the recommendation.

Standardized testing has long been an issue in Riverhead and across Long Island. For the last decade, local students and parents have embraced the national opt-out movement, which caused a large number of students to boycott standardized testing for grades 3 through 8.

Riverhead’s “Equity in Education Plan,” adopted by the school board last year, advocates for measuring student proficiency in classroom spaces “that go beyond metrics traditionally associated with standardized testing.” 

Editor’s Note Jan. 1, 2023: This article has been amended to include comments from Executive Director for Secondary Education, Grants and Student Outcomes William Galati made after initial publication.

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Alek Lewis is a lifelong Riverhead resident and a 2021 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism. Previously, he served as news editor of Stony Brook’s student newspaper, The Statesman, and was a member of the campus’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Email: alek@riverheadlocal.com