School districts weigh in on the ‘Do No Harm’ Regents exam debate

New York State Regents examinations take place in June, and as they inch closer, officials at some North Fork school districts are discussing whether to implement a “Do No Harm” policy to protect students’ final grades. 

The policy allows schools to omit a State Regents exam score from a student’s final course grade if it negatively affects their average. Some districts adopted the policy during the COVID-19 pandemic, when learning conditions were severely disrupted and more flexibility was needed in assessing students’ overall progress. 

Since then, local school districts have been debating whether to opt out of or extend the “Do No Harm” policy. It is also up to individual districts to decide how to apply Regents exam scores to final grades. 

According to its website, the New York State Education Department “does not require or recommend that schools use Regents examination grades as part of the calculation of a student’s final average.” 

Riverhead is one school district where the Board of Education is currently reviewing and revising its policies, including the weighting of Regents exam scores — which was last undertaken in 2019. 

The current proposal is to reduce the weight of a Regents score  from 20% to 10% of a student’s final course grade. Each quarter’s grade would then be weighted at 22.5% of the final, the policy states. 

There are also a handful of exceptions to how a Regents score might affect an overall course grade, including a lower passing threshold for students with a disability and English Language Learners, or an invalid test, which is a correction issued for a specific Regents exam that may affect the administration or interpretation of the test. 

Additionally, students who decide to retake a Regents examination in a specific course will have that course grade recalculated to reflect the highest grade earned, and that higher grade will be recorded on their transcript. 

“Education isn’t meant to be punitive,” said Riverhead school board president Colin Palmer. “If a student does better a second time they take a Regents, that’s evidence of education, evidence of increased mastery over the subject, and that’s the whole point of a class.” 

After a lengthy discussion about the policy at an April 16 meeting, the school board voted to postpone approving the second version of the revised policy until Tuesday, May 16, and sent that draft back to the policy committee for review.

Board members Virginia Healy and Cynthia Redmond said they felt conflicted about how to properly weight Regents exam scores and agreed there needs to be more community input. 

“I think we need to operate from what is best for our students,” Ms. Redmond said. “They are mixed as well — there are some who feel it should count for something and then there are others who have expressed that they themselves have had issues with the testing.” 

Interim district superintendent Cheryl Pedisch said that if the school board decides to extend “Do No Harm” until next academic year, a slight amendment would need to be made to the existing district policy and the 20% weight would remain. 

Some Riverhead school parents have requested that the district reinstate the “Do No Harm” policy, including Allyson Mateway of Wading River. She launched a petition in 2022 in favor of establishing a permanent policy and has advocated for “Do No Harm” for over a decade. 

“This is the most equitable solution for all our students,” Ms. Mateway said in a letter to the school board.

In response to the pandemic and its effect on instruction, the Greenport Union Free School District also changed the weighting of their Regents exams on students’ final averages from 20% to 10%. 

Gary Kalish, secondary principal at Greenport High School, said that since making the change, everything has been “relatively status quo.” He said some students benefited in terms of their passing grades. 

Mr. Kalish said he can “appreciate” the idea of “Do No Harm” and supports the policy to an extent, considering many of the Regents exams are required for a student to graduate. 

He argued that if a student performs poorly on a Regents exam and it is placed into the local quarterly class average of the year, whatever the final grade turns out to be can prevent them from graduating on time. 

“Some could say it’s a bit of a double jeopardy,” Mr. Kalish said. “I am in support of districts, and in our district I’m grateful we were able to put together a new policy in consideration of that.” 

Like many other Long Island school districts, the Shoreham-Wading River Central School District implemented a “Do No Harm” policy during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic — counting a Regents exam score only if it helped a student’s overall average grade. 

Frank Pugliese, Shoreham-Wading River High School principal, said the district has since done away with this measure. Regents exams in that district now account for 12% of a student’s overall final grade. The marking period grades are weighted at 22%­ — a combined average of the student’s average daily grades and average major grades. 

Mr. Pugliese said the district believes the Regents are a “valid exam” and the scores are used to help determine placement for students. He added that he sees the students scoring “well above” the average in the state exams and so far, the district has not identified any issues. 

The challenge right now — which Mr. Pugliese said is a common post-pandemic problem — is rebuilding test stamina. However, he said, the value of the Regents exam can follow a student beyond graduation. 

“It’s just getting them back to where they previously had been in their ability to sit for a longer assessment, really not much to do with content,” Mr. Pugliese said. “We firmly believe that [the exams] establish good habits for our students, whether they are going on to college, into the work field — in terms of focus and attention and being able to stay on task. Those are all skills that are going to be essential as they move into adulthood.”