Parents, students and educators around New York state protested this
June when 63 percent of high-school students taking the Math A Regents
exam failed. The widespread failure rate put the graduations of several
hundred New York seniors in jeopardy.
“This exam doesn’t seem fair,” New York State Education Commissioner
Richard Mills acknowledged in a statement issued after the protests
began. “I think we made some mistakes with this exam, and it’s up to us
to identify and correct them.”
The state gave schools the option of using local course grades in
place of Regents-exam scores to determine whether juniors and seniors
passed math. Students who failed the exam and will be sophomores or
juniors this fall must retake the exam.
Catholic-school educators and parents complained to the state about
the Math A Regents exam along with their public-school counterparts,
but their reaction to the exam was mixed.
Karen Juliano, principal at Geneva’s DeSales High School, observed
that “we didn’t have everybody pass, but there weren’t major
surprises.” She noted that the school had instituted extra math
preparatory sessions for students this year.
“If we hadn’t had some of the extra preparation time, we may have
had the same experience (as other schools),” Juliano said.
At Bishop Kearney High School in Irondequoit, “we certainly had a
performance which was not the usual performance,” according to
Principal Louis D’Angelo. That sentiment was echoed by Sally A.
Cardilli, principal of Aquinas Institute in Rochester.
“This particular exam did present difficulty for some of our
students,” she said, adding that her math department “didn’t feel it
But at both AQ and BK, all the students taking the exam were
underclassmen, according to Cardilli and Bishop Kearney President Mark
“We had no seniors in jeopardy,” Cardilli said.
Statewide, students are expected to begin taking Math A in their
freshman year, according to Jonathan Burman, spokesman for the state
education department. However, public high-school seniors who took the
Math A Regents exam this year may have taken the course later in their
high-school careers or failed it before and taken it again, he said.
Educators at Catholic high schools in the Diocese of Rochester noted
that their students are generally expected to complete Math A in their
sophomore year. Hence, Catholic-school students were less likely than
their public-school counterparts to be in danger of not graduating
because they failed the Regents exam.
Tom Hogan, the state education department’s supervisor for nonpublic
schools, said Catholic schools demand much academically.
Catholic-school students are often characterized by what they ask of
themselves, he said. The question isn’t “‘Will I go to college or not?’
It’s ‘What college am I going to?'” he said.
Passing the test
As evidenced by the flap over the Math A Regents exam, standardized
testing is a significant part of students’ lives, and one that has been
growing in importance since the New York educational-reform movement of
the mid-1990s. Starting with the high-school class of 2001-02, for
example, the state began requiring that public-school students pass
Regents courses and exams. Some private schools and Catholic schools
instead use their own exams, Hogan said, but most Catholic high-school
students also take Regents exams.
As part of an overall effort to improve educational standards in the
late 1990s, the state also developed a system of assessments for
fourth-, fifth- and eighth-graders. Its implementation has affected
curriculum design and influenced what takes place in the classroom,
according to such educators as Ann Frank, coordinator of assessment and
professional growth for the Diocese of Rochester’s Department of
Catholic Schools. Overall, Frank said, the state’s heightened standards
have invited students to become critical and articulate thinkers.
“You have a lot more participation as far as the students are
concerned,” Frank said. “Now it’s like they are becoming part of the
lesson that’s taking place.”
She added that students are challenged more today than were students
of the past. For example, math students must explain how they
got a math answer right, not simply write a correct answer on the test,
Hogan said Catholic schools across the state embraced the
assessments and standards at their onset, and here in the Rochester
Diocese, Catholic-school students have done well under the system.
According to information provided by the diocesan Catholic Schools
office, 78 percent of Catholic-school fourth-graders met the state’s
standards in math in 2002, as compared to 68 percent of students in New
York’s public schools. Meanwhile, 79 percent of diocesan fourth-graders
met the state’s standards in English/language arts in 2003, whereas 64
percent of the state’s public-school students met the standards.
Some individual schools are doing even better. For example, 100
percent of fifth-grade students at St. Agnes School in Avon met the
state’s standards in social studies from 2001-03, while 95 percent of
the school’s fourth-graders met the state’s standards in
English/language arts in 2003. At St. Pius Tenth School in Chili, 98
percent of fourth-graders met the state’s standards in science,
compared to 67 percent of the state’s public-school students.
Quizzing the educators
The performance of diocesan Catholic-school students reflects the
overall superior performance of Catholic-school students across the
nation, according to Catholic Schools Still Make A Difference,
published by the National Catholic Education Association. The book is a
study of Catholic schools between 1991 and 2000, and in its fourth
chapter on “Outcomes” cites the U.S. Department of Education’s finding
that Catholic-school students consistently score higher than their
public-school counterparts in all academic areas. Additionally, the
book notes that in 1993-94, 90 percent of Catholic high-school seniors
applied to college, compared to 75 percent of private-school seniors
and 50 percent of public-school seniors.
Some observers have attributed this success to the ability of
Catholic and other private schools to pick and choose their students.
Catholic-school educators in the Rochester Diocese note that they
generally admit any student regardless of academic prowess, although
some students do leave — or are asked to leave — if they consistently
fail to meet a particular school’s academic standards. Also, Catholic
schools are sometimes unable to accommodate special-needs students, and
in some cases may recommend that these students enroll in public
schools that can better meet their needs, diocesan educators said.
Sister Elizabeth Meegan, OP, diocesan superintendent of schools, was
a co-author of the “Outcomes” chapter of the NCEA book, which observed
that “questions related to the exact causes of the higher achievement
from Catholic school students may never be answered.” However, she,
Hogan and diocesan educators speculated that the causes are many,
including the following:
* Catholic schools usually have more orderly, disciplined classrooms
than do other schools.
* Larger numbers of Catholic-school parents take more of an active
interest in their children’s academic progress than do public-school
parents, and Catholic schools demand more parental involvement than do
* Catholic schools tend to demand more of their students
academically than do public schools.
* Catholic-school parents and students know that Catholic education
is a privilege, not a right, and play by the rules of their schools.
* Catholic schools are able to implement new educational approaches
more quickly because they have fewer layers of bureaucracy than do
* Catholic schools generally have smaller class sizes and lower
student-to-teacher ratios than do public schools.
Sister Meegan added that Catholic schools have another advantage
that may fuel their academic success: the fact that they view children
as eternal souls.
“I think the religious atmosphere of our schools contributes to a
sense of dedication and importance of what we’re doing,” she said.