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From Student Markets to Credential Markets: The Creation of the Regents Examination System in New York State, 1864–1890

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 February 2017


In 1864 the Regents of the University of the State of New York announced their intention to develop a system of competitive examinations for students at academies and high schools across the state. Aimed both at strengthening those institutions and at stimulating the ambitions of students, the exams would provide “positive evidence of actual merit” in learning and instruction. On the basis of the exams the Regents would then distribute state funds to institutions and award “promotions and honors” to students. Thus New York launched the first state-wide system of standardized examinations and performance-based credentials in the country.

Copyright © 1999 by the History of Education Society 

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1 Annual Report of the Regents of the University of the State of New York (Albany: Comstock and Cassidy, 1864): 19–22. The Regents explicitly noted that their examination system was a new experiment for the state and for the country (Ibid., 1866: 1819). Today New York continues to grant special Regents diplomas to students based on their performance on state-wide Regents exams.

2 The basic terms of the Regents examination system are described in Hough, Franklin B. Historical and Statistical Record of the University of the State of New York During the Century from 1784 to 1884 (Albany: Weed, Parsons & Co., 1885): 456–8 and 842–46.

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3 See especially Labaree, David The Making of an American High School: The Credential Market and the Central High School of Philadelphia, 1838–1939 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988) and Reese, William The Origins of the American High School (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995).

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4 Labaree, David The Making of an American High School; David Hogan, “‘… the silent compulsions of economic relations': Markets and the Demand for Education,” Educational Policy 6:2 (Summer, 1992): 180205;” Hogan, “To Better Our Condition: Educational Credentialing and ‘the Silent Compulsion of Economic Relations’ in the United States, 1830 to the Present,” History of Education Quarterly 36:3 (Fall, 1996): 243–270; Labaree, David “Public Goods, Private Goods: The American Struggle over Educational Goals,” American Educational Research Journal 34:1 (Spring, 1997): 29–81 and idem, How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning: the Credentials Race in American Education (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997); Brown, David K. Degrees of Control: A Sociology of Educational Expansion and Occupational Credentialism (New York: Teachers College Press, 1995); and Collins, Randall The Credential Society: An Historical Sociology of Education and Stratification (New York: Academic Press, 1979).

5 Although academies were ubiquitous institutions in states throughout the country; and though state-chartered academies and even state subsidies for academies existed in other states; New York had the largest and most elaborate system of state funding and regulation of academies in the country. Other systems of state support for academies include Pennsylvania's and Connecticut's. See Woody, Thomas A History of Women's Education in the United States, [1929] 2 vols. (New York, Octagon Books, 1966), and Reed, H. S. “The Period of Academy in Connecticut, 1780–1850,” Ph.D. dissertation, Yale University, 1942).

6 Beadie, NancyMarket-Based Policies of School Funding: Lessons from the History of the New York Academy System,Educational Policy 13:3 (Spring 1999), forthcoming. For the present essay time slice comparisons of Regents enrollment and examination data were analyzed by institution for 1860, 1865, 1870, 1875, 1881 and 1885. Systems level totals were examined for 1890. (Changes in examination and funding policies instituted in 1880 make the 1881 data more useful for examining development of the system over time than the 1880 data would be.)

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7 The most complete study of higher schooling in New York in the nineteenth century is provided by Miller, George Frederick The Academy System of the State of New York (Albany, J.B. Lyons Co., 1922). Other descriptions of the Regents system include Hough, Historical and Statistical Record; Abbott, Frank C. Government Policy and Higher Education: A Study of the Regents of the University of the State of New York, 1784–1949 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1958); O'Neil, Edward Herring “Private Schools and Public Vision: A History of Academies in Upstate New York, 1800–1860” (PhD. dissertation, Syracuse University, 1984); and Herbst, Jurgen “The Regents of the University of the State of New York, 1784–1920: Secondary Education Emerges in the New Nation” in The Colonial Experience in Education, ed. Novoa, Antonio Depaepe, Marco and Johanningmeier, Erwin V. Paedagogica Historica, supp. ser. 1 (1995): 317–333.

8 For further discussion of the terms upon which academies were regulated before 1867, see Beadie, “Market-Based Policies.”

9 “An Act to provide for the establishment of union free schools,” 18 June 1853, Laws of New York (Albany: Little & Co., 1853), ch. 433, 76 sess., 828–836.

10 Miller, New York Academy System, 45 53. Annual Report of the Regents, (1874): 396419.

11 “An Act to revise and consolidate the general acts relating to Public Instruction,” 2 May 1864, Laws of New York, (Albany: Van Bethuysen, 1864), ch. 555, 87th sess., 1211–1290.

12 “An Act to amend an act entitled ‘An act to revise and consolidate the general acts relating to public instruction,’ passed May second, eighteen hundred and sixty-four, and to abolish rate bills authorized by special act,” Laws of New York, (Albany: Weed, Parson & Co., 1867), 16 Apr. 1867, ch. 406, 90th sess., 964–976.

13 In 1881 the Regents reported 168 high schools under its visitation and 98 independent academies, as opposed to 147 academies and 95 academic departments in 1875–76. Annual Report of the Regents (1882), xi. See also Herbst, “The Regents,” 325.

14 Sayles, Ira B.Rushford Academy,Annual Report of the Regents (1855), 276–82. After indicating some of his criticisms of the existing academy system in his 1854 report, Sayles was apparently invited to write an essay for publication in the next Regents report elaborating his argument.

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15 Ibid.

16 Annual Report of the Regents (1864), 1922.

17 Reese, See Origins, 3858 and 80–102 and LeLoudis, James L. Schooling the New South: Pedagogy, Self, and Society in North Carolina, 1880–1920 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996).

18 “Ordinance relative to the Examination and Classification of Scholars and the Distribution of the Literature Fund,” 27 July 1864 reprinted Hough, Franklin B. Historical and Statistical Record, 456–8.

19 Annual Report of the Regents (1867), 565–7.

20 One modification the Regents made in the late 1860s was to require that exam papers be forwarded to them for verification of results rather than relying on the judgment of the institution's own examining committee. This resulted in further decreases in the numbers of students certified as academic scholars.

21 Annual Report of the Regents (1871, 1875, 1882, 1886).

22 Ibid., 1882.

23 Sayles (1855), 278.

24 See year-by-year comparisons, 1860–1870 in Annual Report of the Regents (1871), xvii; ibid. 1876, 1882 and 1886.

25 See comparisons in Annual Report of the Regents (1881), xviii; and ibid. (1886), 11.

26 Vinovskis, MarisHave We Underestimated the Extent of Antebellum High School Attendance?History of Education Quarterly 28:4 (Winter, 1988):551567. To address the problem of accurately estimating rates of high school attendance among youth from aggregate annual attendance data, Vinovskis matched individual level data from the schools in one town for a six year period with individual level census data for that town in 1860. Extrapolating from this case, Vinovskis determined that a good estimate of the proportion of high school age youth who ever attended high school could be obtained by multiplying the number of students aged 10 to 19 by .35 and then dividing the result into the aggregate annual enrollment figure. Vinovskis performed this analysis on town level data rather than on the state level data considered here. The use of state level data presumably results in lower estimates than the use of town level data, as aggregate census figures include children residing in localities where no academy or high school existed, as compared with Vinovskis’ study, which focused specifically on towns that did have high schools. Vinovskis also developed his procedure based on census and enrollment data for 1860. Using the same procedure with data from 1880 will not result in estimates as accurate as those for 1860. However, the 1880 calculations should overstate rather than understate the proportion of youth attending higher schools. More students persisted from term to term and year to year in 1880 than in 1860. Thus annual enrollment data would be closer to the actual number of students ever attending high school from a particular age cohort, and would require a less drastic correction than for 1860. Population data are derived from the U.S. Department of Interior, Census Office, Eighth Census of the United States [1864] (New York: Norman Ross, 1990) and idem, Tenth Census of the United States, 1880, Vol. I [1883] (New York: Norman Ross, 1991).

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27 Median figures computed for full sets of academy data for these years. See note 5.

28 Annual Report of the Regents (1871), xvii.

29 Ibid. (1876, 1882, 1886, 1891). The Regents collected data distinguishing between these groups of students according to average attendance by terms rather than by total annual enrollment. To determine total annual enrollments by group, average attendance figures were divided by annual attendance rates for the student body as a whole.

30 Ibid. Also, U.S. Department of Interior, Eighth Census, Tenth Census, and Report on Population of the United States at the Eleventh Census: 1890, Part II (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1897). See note 23.

31 See Rury, John L.American school enrollment in the Progressive era: An interpretive inquiry,History’ of Education 14:1 (March, 1985): 4967.

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32 I would distinguish here between the social value of school attendance and the economic value of such attendance. See Rury, John L. Education and Women's Work: Female Schooling and the Division of Labor in Urban America, 1870–1930 (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991): 7589.

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33 Annual Report of the Regents (1868):xx–xxiii.

34 Ibid.

35 In 1867, females constituted 52–3% of the students that qualified as academic scholars through the Regents examination system. The proportion of total students who were female may have been higher. Generally, the proportion of students who were female was higher in urban areas than in non-urban areas.

36 Taking advantage of a state constitutional convention called to address suffrage and finance issues in 1868, some opponents of standardization became involved in a campaign to eliminate the Board of Regents altogether. The Regents managed to repel this attack on their existence, but gave up their campaign to institute an advanced examination system at that time. See the Regents response to the constitutional convention, Annual Report of the Regents (1869), 671–9. Also, Herbst, “The Regents,” 325. For accounts of the larger issues of the constitutional convention, see Sowers, Don C. The Financial History of New York State from 1789 to 1912 (New York: Columbia University, 1914); and Mohr, James C. The Radical Republicans and Reform in New York during Reconstruction (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1973).

37 These events were recounted by Bradley, John in “The Regents Examinations,” Annual Report of the Regents (1883), 307312.

38 Bradley, JohnThe Regents Examinations in Academic Studies,Annual Report of the Regents (1878), 411–7.

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39 Hammond, Bray Banks and Politics in America from the Revolution to the Civil War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957); Ratner, Sidney Soltow, James H. and Scylla, Richard The Evolution of the American Economy: Growth, Welfare, and Decision Making (New York: Basic Books, 1979). The first state and national efforts at railroad regulation were also being debated in legislatures at the time Bradley made his argument. In 1877–78 national congressional leaders sought to follow the lead of New York State in establishing a commerce commission that would regulate incorporation and rate-setting practices from state to state among railroads. See Benson, Lee Merchants, Framers and Railroads: Railroad Regulation and New York Politics, 1850–1887 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1955) and Skowronek, Stephen Building a New American State: The Expansion of National Administrative Capacities, 1877–1920 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982).

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40 Bradley, The Regents Examinations in Academic Studies,“ 411–7.

41 Annual Report of the Regents (1879), xi–xii.

42 Ibid.

43 North, EdwardThe Regents’ Examinations,Annual Report of the Regents (1879), 577–9.

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44 On the overlap between academies and colleges, see Burke, Colin American Collegiate Populations: A Test of the Traditional View (New York: New York University Press, 1982); Leslie, W. Bruce Gentlemen and Scholars: College and Community in the “Age of the University,” 1865–1917 (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992); Herbst, Jurgen The Once and Future School: Three Hundred and Fifty Years of American Secondary Education (New York: Routledge, 1996); and Beadie, Nancy “From Academy to University in New York State: The Genesee Institutions and the Importance of Capital to the Success of an Idea, 1848–1871,” History of Higher Education Annual 14 (1994): 3–28.

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45 Ibid. (1882). In the first year of this new policy, 1880–81, the Regents awarded $3.63 per student for those having passed the preliminary examination, $5 for each student passing the intermediate level of the advanced examinations, and $10 for each student completing a full set of advanced exams and acquiring a Regents diploma.

46 Ibid. (1883), 335–6. To further accommodate this purpose, the Regents specified that students could substitute examinations in Latin and Greek for any but two of the first tier of advanced examinations.

47 Ibid, (1886).

48 Ibid. (1882, 1886, 1891).

49 Ibid.

50 Ibid. (1883), 334.

51 Ibid., 322–8.

52 Ibid., 327.

53 Ibid., 334.

54 Ibid., 335.

55 Ibid (1884), 186.

56 Ibid. (1883).

57 Ibid. (1891), 2489.

58 In his discussion of educational credentialing in the United States, for example, Hogan, David notes the dramatic increase in high school enrollments between 1870 and 1900 and says “Predictably, the number of public high schools and high school enrollments exploded.” Hogan, “‘To Better Our Condition,’” 251.

59 Reese, Origins and Vinovskis, “Have We Underestimated?”

60 Labaree, Making; idem., How to Succeed.

61 Bowen, M. LucilleThe Rochester Free Academy,“ in The History of Education in Rochester: Selected Articles on Rochester History, ed. McKelvey, Blake (Rochester, N.Y.: Rochester Historical Society, 1939): 74100.

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62 Labaree, How to Succeed, 102–9.

63 Krug, Edward A. emphasized this point in The Shaping of the American High School, 1880–1920 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969), 123–45.

64 In 1860, before the shift to the high school as the dominant model of higher schooling, women constituted 52% of the qualified academic scholars in New York academies and high schools. In 1870, after implementation of the preliminary exam, the female proportion of total academic scholars had risen to 56%. By 1885 women constituted 58% of qualified academic scholars state-wide, with the proportion reaching as high as 62–65% in most cities.

65 Rury, See Education and Women's Work, 1624 and 49–75.

66 Skowronek, Building a New American State. For an overview of this large body of literature on state development see Eisner, Marc AllenDiscovering Patterns in Regulatory History: Continuity, Change and Regulatory Regimes,Journal of Policy History 6:2 (1994): 157–87. Studies of such issues specifically in New York include Benson, Merchants, Farmers and Railroads; Seavoy, Ronald The Origins of the American Business Corporation, 1784–1855 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1982); and Gunn, L. Ray The Decline of Authority: Public Economic Policy and Political Development in New York State, 1800–1860 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988).

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