Office of State Assessment

History of Regents Examinations: 1865 to 1987

Preliminary Regents Examinations

The first Regents examinations were "preliminary" examinations that were administered to eighth grade pupils. The preliminary examinations were first administered in November 1865 and were the result of an ordinance passed on July 27, 1864 by the Board of Regents of the State of New York. The ordinance stated in part that:

"At the close of each academic term, a public examination shall be held of all scholars presumed to have completed preliminary studies. . . .To each scholar who sustains such examination, a certificate shall entitle the person holding it to admission into the academic class in any academy subject to the visitation of the Regents, without further examination."

The purpose of the first preliminary examinations was to provide a basis for the distribution of State funds allocated by statute to encourage academic education. The preliminary examinations continued, with many changes, from their initial administration in 1865 until June 1959. After that administration, they were replaced by a battery of Junior High School Survey Tests, which were discontinued in the late 1960's.

High School Regents Examinations

The first Regents examinations for high school pupils were authorized at The University Convocation in 1876, when a resolution was adopted instructing the Regents to "institute a series of examinations in academic studies and to issue certificates to students passing the same."

The reason for instituting this series of high school examinations is described in the following quotation from a speech by Dr. John E. Bradley, principal of Albany High School, at the time when the high school examinations were instituted.

"The salutary influence of the primary examinations in stimulating both teachers and pupils to thoroughness in the acquisition of the elementary branches suggested the extension of the system to academic studies. It was argued that the Regents exhibited great solicitude with reference to the admission of pupils to high schools and academies, but took no interest in the kind of instruction they received there, or the amount of knowledge with which they graduated. If there was danger of neglecting the elementary branches and advancing schools prematurely, the danger of superficiality and misdirection in the range of secondary study was still greater."

The first high school examinations were held in June 1878. About one hundred institutions participated. The five studies examined on that first occasion were algebra, American history, elementary Latin, natural philosophy, and physical geography.

In 1879, after evaluating the results of the first administration, the Board of Regents approved a series of examinations for secondary schools to be given in November, February, and June each year, as follows:

  • Rhetoric and English composition
  • English literature
  • Algebra, through quadratics
  • Plane geometry
  • Plane trigonometry
  • American history
  • Science of government
  • Political economy
  • General history
  • Classical geography and antiquities
  • Physical geography
  • Physiology and hygiene
  • Zoology
  • Astronomy
  • Chemistry
  • Botany
  • Geology
  • Latin grammar and exercises
  • Caesar's Commentaries, books 1-2
  • Caesar's Commentaries, books 3-4
  • Virgil's Aeneid, books 1-2
  • Virgil's Aeneid, books 3-6
  • Greek grammar (except Prosody)
  • Greek grammar (Prosody)
  • Homer's Iliad
  • Xenophon's Anabasis, books 2-3
  • Xenophon's Anabasis, book 1
  • French grammar and exercises
  • French translations
  • German
  • Natural philosophy
  • Mental philosophy
  • Moral philosophy
  • Bookkeeping
  • Drawing, freehand and mechanical
  • Eclogues of Virgil
  • Latin prose composition
  • Sallust's Catiline
  • Sallust's Jugurthine War
  • Cicero in Catalinam
  • Cicero pro Lege Manilia
  • Cicero pro Archiam

By 1911, the list of academic examinations had grown to include such subjects as Spanish, Hebrew, Italian, biology, economics, commercial arithmetic, commercial law, business writing, typewriting, harmony and counterpoint, history of music and acoustics, and history of education.

By 1927, the high school examinations had been expanded to include examinations in comprehensive vocational homemaking, agricultural science, economics, and general science.

By 1931, examinations such as Latin grammar and Greek grammar, Latin prose composition and Greek prose composition, etc., were being replaced by more comprehensive examinations. Also, the vocational examinations being offered had been increased to include examinations such as applied chemistry, comprehensive art, architecture, electricity, mechanical design, structural design, applied design, chemistry and dyeing, cloth construction, costume draping, marketing and salesmanship.

Changes in the Regents examination program reflect changes in the high school curriculum, and, by 1970, the examinations being offered had changed considerably. The trend toward comprehensive examinations had continued in almost all areas. Only six examinations in the foreign languages were now being offered, one covering two years of Latin and the others covering three years of study in French, German, Spanish, Italian and Hebrew. Only one comprehensive social studies examination was being provided. The number of mathematics examinations had been reduced to three: ninth year, tenth year, and eleventh year mathematics. There were still four examinations in the sciences and six in business subjects, but the examinations in art, music, vocational education, and agriculture had been discontinued.

From 1970 to the present, there have been few changes in the subjects offered. One change occurred in 1987 when the business examinations were discontinued. Also, beginning in 1988, the comprehensive social studies examination will be replaced by two examinations, one in United States history and government and one in global studies.

Preparation and Administration of Regents Examinations

The Regents examination program for high school students has always been a product of the Department and the high schools. In 1877, a committee representing the colleges and academies was appointed to work with the Board of Regents in planning the new program. The examinations themselves have always been administered under the jurisdiction of school principals and the papers have been rated by classroom teachers. At least as early as 1891, blanks for suggestions and criticisms "relative to the character and scope of the examinations" were shipped with each set of examination papers. These comments are tabulated and studied carefully.

Until 1906, the Regents examinations were written by the Department staff. In that year, the Department established the practice of inviting committees of classroom teachers to come to Albany to write the examinations. Each committee of teachers wrote the entire Regents examination for the subject in which they were specialists during their meeting in Albany.

Objective questions first appeared in Regents examinations in 1923. The first objective questions used were of the true-false, completion, and matching variety. In 1927, multiple-choice questions first appeared in the Regents examinations. By 1940, multiple-choice questions were being used in examinations in English, social studies, Latin, the sciences, and agriculture. At present, all examinations include a large proportion of objective questions, although most of the examinations still retain questions of the free answer or essay type.

With the advent of objective questions, a pretesting program was introduced, and the members of the committees began to write objective questions in advance of their meeting in Albany so that the questions could be pretested to determine if they were appropriate for use in the actual examination. This change also involved the students themselves in the development of Regents examinations. The first pretests were given in 1938, when a few hundred questions were pretested on about a thousand students.

In 1958, the Department began to invite classroom teachers who were not members of the examination committees to write objective questions for pretesting purposes. With this change, the number of questions being pretested each year and the number of classroom teachers and high school students involved in the pretesting programs increased considerably. In the spring of 1987, the Department pretested about 5,500 questions on about 55,600 high school students.

The increased involvement of classroom teachers and high school students is well illustrated by an analysis of the preparation of the June 1987 Regents examination in biology, which contains mainly multiple-choice questions. For this examination, 70 classroom teachers wrote questions, five classroom teachers served on the committee that assembled the examination from the pool of pretested questions, and two classroom teachers reviewed the assembled examination. Each question was pretested on about 200 students in Regents biology classes, and the total number of students involved was about 18,400.

Since 1895, Regents examinations have offered students a degree of choice in deciding which questions to answer. This makes each Regents examination more readily adaptable for statewide use by allowing for differences in classroom instruction and in the skills of individual students. Each Regents examination is used only once (with a few exceptions), and after administration the test content becomes public information.

After each Regents examination period, the Department provides school administrators with summaries of the examination results so that school administrators can compare the results for their schools and/or school districts with those of other schools, school districts, and various reference groups. These summaries provide information on the numbers taking and passing each examination and the percent of the enrollment taking each examination. In addition to these summaries, tables of percentile equivalents are provided to school administrators.


Last Updated: August 22, 2012