NYS 2022 US History Regents Exam Cancellation

Posted on 25 May 2022 by Steve Markham

Today the school district announced that the US History Regents Exam (“Regents” courses in New York are required for a Regents diploma, something like graduating cum laude) will be cancelled this year. The email included a link to a State DoE letter explaning why, and the short answer is, because of the recent shooting in Buffalo. I found myself forming/discovering an opinion, which I have tried to be mindful of lately. Perhaps this is a case study in holding opinions well.

I don’t exactly have a checklist for how to have opinions well, but if I did the first item on it would be to see if I needed any opinion on the topic at hand. Not caring about stuff that doesn’t matter is at the heart of Stoicism. I’m not a student, not a history teacher, and have no illusion that taking an exam would improve Kyle’s education. Why should I care whether this particular exam is cancelled? I don’t think I need an opinion on this topic. But that doesn’t change the fact that I notice I do have an opinion or two. Mostly, I don’t like the cancellation. There are some downstream justifications or explanation for what I don’t like and why, but the opinion started with that feeling, and I had to introspect to find reasons for it.

Item two on my non-existent checklist might be to see if I have more than one opinion. Sometimes issues are complex, and one can both like and dislike an event. Sometimes it depends on whether one sees it in isolation or as part of trend/movement. For example, I don’t care about this particular exam, but if it is predictive of lots of future events, perhaps I need to adjust future behavior to account for how the world is going to be. And perhaps if I can understand the motivation behind the cancellation, I can find a win-win, where everyone achieves their objective, or where my simultaneously held opinion aren’t in conflict with each other.

The stated reason for the cancellation is a) “there is content on the [exam] that has the potential to compound student trauma caused by the recent violence in Buffalo” and b) there isn’t time to modify the test before the planned administration of it. Implicit in that reasoning is a desire to minimize student trauma, which, on the face of it seems like a good idea. It’s healthy to acknowledge that even tests with “educationally sound” content are administered in a broader context, and awareness of that context improves exams.

I’m skeptical that minimizing student trauma by cancelling exams in the wake of a shooting is going to improve life outcomes for students. If you haven’t read The Coddling of the American Mind or Antifragile, the three sentence summary of why cancelling a test might be a bad idea is this: People face trauma. References to Buffalo or gun violence during a test taken in a safe place with air conditioning is perhaps the smallest possible trauma. People who have never experienced even that modest level of trauma are going to be completely unprepared for adulthood and citizenship.

I don’t blame anyone for cancelling the test, but I’m disheartened (yet again) by the education system. The incentives of the system are strong and obvious. Cancelling the test will receive only half-hearted pushback from people like me, but administering the test would likely cause some predictable headaches for school administrators and State DoE. This one instance of “safe” trauma won’t change anyone’s life outcome, and anyway the administrators and DoE employees making the decision have no direct incentive to improve life outcomes (which can’t be quantified ever, and won’t be observable for decades). And parents like me already have to take measures to toughen up our kids–this one cancellation doesn’t change that.

Item three, what sorts of things would change my opinion? In this case, I think my initial feeling wouldn’t have existed in a world where I didn’t have a general notion that people are getting wimpy and fragile. If we were raising one generation after another of resilient, confident adults, I think I would see this as thoughtful and appropriate. Of course, in that world it would also be unnecessary. In a world of very local education where teachers had more discretion with how best to instruct each specific group of students (and where I trusted teachers to generally be good at that) I think some teachers would cancel or modify the test, and I wouldn’t be as resistant to it.

I think that’s all I have to say about this in particular. More generally, maybe a three-point checklist is useful for screening opinions:

  1. Do I need an opinion on this topic?
  2. Do I have more than one opinion? Why might someone have a different opinion?
  3. What would change my opinion?

In general, I want to hold fewer opinions, and I want to hold most opinions weakly. Hmm, that’s not quite right. I want to hold most opinions clearly, meaning I understand my own opinion, how strong I hold it, and why I or others might hold different opinions. This exam cancellation is a very minor issue, which in some ways makes it great for exercising my hold-opinions-well muscles.