Secret to Better Test Scores: Make State Reading Tests Easier, Smoke
and Mirrors (on the effect of increasing retention rates), Five
simple rules for fudging test numbers, Institutionalized
Cheating and 2005 NAEP & NY Scores Compared.
NY Makes Huge Scoring Change to 8th Grade ELA Exam
Look for a dramatic reduction of students scoring in the lowest level (Level
1) in the 2005 exam results
May 3, 2005
MAY 18, 2005 UPDATE: I’m beginning to wonder whether the
state is creating scale scores and cut-off scores after the exams are given. If
that’s the case, the whole testing enterprise has been corrupted.
I have reported on several occasions that the state has been manipulating exams
to produce better results. This year’s 8th Grade ELA exam is one of the best
examples of what’s going on. Take a look at this chart, which compares the
Raw-to-Scale-Score Conversions for 2003 and 2005:
In 2003, students had to answer 25 or more questions right to escape from Level
1, which the
state defines as "indicating no proficiency."
In 2005, students needed to answer 9 fewer questions to escape the Level 1
BEST OF MYSHORTPENCIL.COM
A LIST OF THIS WEEK’S COMMENTARIES
Stories on Regents and State Exams
your salary to any teacher’s
Now that, in and of itself, might not indicate a lowering of standards if
exam difficulty was higher in 2005 than in 2003. To get an idea of whether
that’s the case, one would like to see the distribution of raw scores on the two
exams. Assuming students were equally skilled in both years, if, for example,
the number of students answering 15 questions correctly in 2005 fell in relation
to 2003, then that would indicate the exam was more difficult. Consequently,
that would justify lowering the cut-off score for Level 1 in 2005 so as to make
a fair comparison with 2003.
Unfortunately, the state hasn’t published the frequency distribution of raw
scores on its website for a number of years. So, people are expected to take it
as an article of faith that the tests are fairly calibrated and that standards
are not being lowered.
But is that likely? We know the state has been altering other exams to make them
easier and to obtain politically acceptable results. We also know that No Child
Left Behind creates strong psychological and financial incentives for states to
Yearly Progress. Is performance on state exams really improving? Is it just
a coincidence that exam difficulty is supposedly increasing so as to justify
lower cut-off scores? Or might exam difficulty be relatively stable with cut-off
scores being lowered to show progress? Without the raw score frequency
distribution tables, it’s difficult to know.
The state says raw scores cannot be compared from one year to the next because
of changes in exam difficulty. That’s why it converts raw scores to scale
scores. A 650 scale score in 2003 is supposed to be equivalent to the same score
in 2005. That means scale scores can be compared from year to year.
A scale score of 650 in 2005 required correct answers for 14 questions. The same
score in 2003 required correct answers for 21 questions. That indicates a
substantial increase in exam difficulty–at least for the "easy"
questions. Again, to know if that were the case, one would like to see the tests
and the distribution of raw scores for both years.
We know that well-written tests should produce a bell curve distribution of
scores. The curve for 2003 closely approximates a bell curve distribution. But
the 2005 scale-score curve is highly skewed. This raises the possibility that
the 2005 8th-grade ELA exam was poorly designed psychometrically. If that’s
true, then any inferences drawn about improvements in student performance are
Here’s the percentage of questions students must answer correctly to score in
each level in 2003 and 2005.
|Level||Definition||2003 minimum score||2005 minimum score|
|4||Meeting standards with distinction||91%||93%|
|2||Not fully meeting standards||58%||37%|
|1||Not meeting the standards||Below 58%||Below 37%|
Based on the changes in cut-off scores and raw-to-scale-score conversions, I
have a prediction about what the 8th-grade ELA exam results will look like when
they are released within the next few days:
- The percentage of students scoring in Level 1 will decline significantly,
indicating what will be characterized as dramatic improvement;
- The percentage of students scoring in Level 4 (exceeding standards) may
dip a bit;
- The percentage of students scoring in Level 3 will increase;
- The percentage of students scoring in Level 2 will significantly increase;
- The percentage of students scoring in Levels 1 and 2 combined will decline
by a small to moderate amount.
See, also, the following related articles:
students make grade
MATH KIDS GET ‘PASS’ ON REGENTS
‘cut scores’ revealed
to Project School Performance on Fourth and Eighth Grade Tests
recalculate math requirements
LESSON IN THOSE SCORES
makes biology, math tests too easy to pass
in the classroom
Math A test results debated
pass physics test under Regents slide rule
AND MIDDLE SCHOOL MATH ACHIEVEMENT IMPROVE IN 2003
approve changes to tests
chief opts to rescore Math A Regents exam
scores stir charges unfair physics test
Cut Test Standards to Avoid Sanctions
Regents scoring is a shuck
Carl Strock / Schenectady
(NY) Gazette Columnist
June 30, 2005
this follow-up commentary, Strock
out-of-date on Regents’ scoring.
The state Board of Regents is raising
standards, you have perhaps heard. No more passing grade of 55 on the famous
Regents exams taken by high school students. Henceforth the passing grade will
But what do you think 65 (or 55) means? Do you think it means the percentage of
an exam gotten right, as it did when you went to school?
No, ladies and gentlemen, not in the wonderful world of educational bureaucracy,
In fact, it can mean almost anything, as dictated only by the stirrings of a
magic potion deep in the basement of the State Ed building in Albany, but the
one thing it does not mean, ever, is that a student got 65 percent of an exam
correct. It never means that.
In fact, on the recent "Math A" test, given mostly to freshmen and
sophomores, a passing score of 65 equated to just 43 percent.
Yes, 43 percent, which a student could get by answering correctly 18 out of the
first 35 questions, and blowing off the rest of the exam if he so chose.
The highest that 65 has meant in the sampling of exams I have looked at is 60
percent, and there was such an uproar about that one that the state went back
and rejiggered the scores, dropping the passing percentage to 55, though they
didn’t put it in those terms and you had to do the calculation for yourself.
(The basic data is available at www.nysedregents.org/testing/hsregents.html.)
The idea, pretty clearly, is to give the appearance of high standards by
fudging scores, that’s all. And if the fudging doesn’t yield the desired
result, as it did not on the recent "Math B" test, then the state
Department of Education fudges a second time, retroactively.
called cheating. It’s no different in effect than teachers helping students with
their answers while taking tests.
Too many students failed the "Math B" test, taken by juniors and
seniors, so State Ed stirred the vat of brew down in its basement and came up
with a new "conversion chart," as they call it, which changes a
student’s "raw score" into a "scaled score," or final grade.
It’s not simple, or we could all follow it and see the deceptiveness of it. It’s
as complicated as a teachers’ salary schedule or a school budget – designed, in
other words, not to reveal but to obfuscate.
totally undermines the utility of the exam scores and the purposes of the
Remember when you went to school and took a test and some questions were worth
maybe two points each, and some were worth 10 points, and so on, and they all
added up to 100? You got your score, and it was the number of points you got out
Not anymore. Too clear, too easily understandable, too difficult to fudge.
Here’s what they do now:
They still weigh the questions by difficulty, which is fair enough – most worth
two points, a few worth three or four, some worth up to six. But the point value
doesn’t add up to 100. It adds up to something offbeat like 88, or 84, or 85
always different, so it’s hard to do comparisons.
The number of points you get for your right answers is called your "raw
score" – let’s say, to take an example, 45 out of a possible 88, which
would be about half.
To convert that raw score of 45 to your final grade, the teacher consults the
official "conversion chart." If the test in question was the Math B
test of June 2004, the teacher would find that 45 out of 88 (roughly 50 percent)
equaled a "scaled score" of 65, the passing grade, and that would be
your grade. Just like that! By magic!
A lousy 50 becomes a 65. Isn’t, that beautiful?
And to make things as obscure as possible, and as difficult to follow as
possible, the conversion changes from test to test. You can’t say that just
because 50 percent on one test converts to 65, that 50 percent on some other
test will also convert to 65. Each test has its own magic chart, sort of like a
deck of tarot cards.
A few examples:
On the Math A test of June 2004, a 50 percent score (42 out of a possible 84
points) converted to 70.
On the Math B test of August 2004, a 50 percent score (44 out of a possible 88
points) converted to 68.
On the Math B test that was just rejiggered, a 50 percent raw score (again 44
out of a possible 88) converted first to 58 and then to 61.
Not only is the transformation variable from test to test, it’s also variable
within the same test.
You can’t say that just because one score gets jacked up 10 points they all get
jacked up 10 points, or that they even get jacked up by the same percentage.
It would be greatly amusing to boil the system down to an exam question and see
if any students – or even teachers, for that matter – could get it right. Of
course, they could not. No one in the world could.
I derive this from the recently rejiggered Math B test:
On a visit to another planet, Susie took a test and got 71 out of 88 points.
That translated to an official score of 85.
Her friend Jim got 44 out of 88 points. What official score did Jim’s result
It’s a simple ratio: 71 is to 85 as 44 is to X. Put it into fractions and
cross-multiply. The answer is 53, meaning, if 71 somehow translates to 85, then
44 translates to 53.
But not on the state’s conversion chart for that particular test. It translates
Why? Why all these irregularities and inconsistencies?
I asked a spokesman for the Education Department, Tom Dunn, and all he did was
try to impress on me that the exam questions are weighted differently according
to their difficulty, which is not the point.
Don’t take just my word for any of this. Check out the Web site I mentioned, and
also check the letter from a teacher today on page A11, under the headline,
"Regents need to be more honest about test results." Teachers know all
about this. It’s no secret to them.
Regents need to be more honest about test results
A Schenectady Gazette
Letter to the Editor
June 30, 2005
I was astounded and, I have to admit, somewhat amused to read your frontpage
headline (June 22) touting Commissioner Mills’ big announcement, "State
sets tougher Regents standards."
The big hype was that students are doing so well on New York’s exams, the state
feels comfortable "raising standards." However, before everyone jumps
for joy, your reporter may like to see the "magic charts" that are
issued for each exam.
In most academic settings, the grade on an exam is the percent correct. So a 65
means the student answered 65 percent of the questions correctly. Now, however,
for our Regents exams, a conversion chart is used to convert the raw score (the
number correct) to the scale score, the one reported by the State Education
Department. The scale score is not the percent correct!
So this year to reach the vaunted score of 65 on the Living Environment, my
biology students only needed to earn 46 percent of the 85 possible points! A
student who successfully answered 65 percent now receives a score of 78. This
year, a score of 55 on my exam means the student only answered 35 percent of the
exam correctly. So for me, at least, "raising the standards" means
State Ed waters down the curriculum and then simply changes the way the exam is
According to State Ed, "the conversion chart may change from one exam to
another." In fact, this year, so many students failed the math B exam,
Education Department spokesman Tom Dunn said, "We decided we needed a new
conversion chart." So how can the state compare the grades from one year
to the next, and from one subject area to the next, when the conversion charts
keep changing, sometimes even after the exam is given?
I realize someone is sure to point out all the statistical analyses that go into
making the charts. However, I have been teaching for over 20 years, and I
firmly believe that the Regents exam grades are inflated so that the Regents can
show how successful they are at raising standards. This gives our students,
their parents, and the general public a distorted picture of our students’
that distorted picture all inures to the benefit of educators. It keeps the heat
off by passing off hamburgers as steak. As I said more than a year ago, the
standards movement is dead. It’s all about politics and acceptable scores, now.
In real life, there is no magic chart. It is unfortunate that our educational
system is being sacrificed to make political points.
Science education needs tough standards
(NY) Times Union Letter to the Editor
July 8, 2005
Goldberg’s June 25 letter regarding the utter lunacy of promoting students
based on a raw score of 39 credits out of 85 possible on the recent Regents
Living Environment exam underscores that the "higher standards"
reforms are just a lot of hot air.
An analysis of the exam shows that reading comprehension plays a more important
part in it than knowledge of scientific concepts. So we claim to raise the bar
and allow students to walk right under it.
Meanwhile, Mary-Ellen Seitelman, in her June 26 Perspective article, "Mark
of failure," lamented the lack of a "gifted" program for higher
achieving students who can sleep their way through these "higher
We do not push our students enough, especially in the sciences. A student can
earn a Regents diploma with credits in earth science and living environment.
Where is physics? Where is chemistry?
The bar has been set abysmally low, and many are slapping each other on the back
to congratulate themselves on the "progress" being made in New York
with regard to higher passing percentages on exams with ridiculous curves.
True progress in science education is a fading dream unless the public wakes up
to the charade being played out with our kids.
Except in wartime, there has been no time in this country’s history when the
need for good scientists, engineers, doctors and researchers has been greater.
The global competition that our children face for good, high-paying jobs depends
on their ability to live in a highly technological and scientific world. Yet, at
every turn, we choose to make science education a low priority in the high
I challenge educational policymakers to take a hard look at where the
"higher standards" that we have set for science education have left
Strock out-of-date on Regents’ scoring
A Schenectady (NY) Gazette
Letter to the Editor
July 7, 2005
I write in response to Carl Strock’s June 30 column ("Regents’
scoring is a shuck"). Thomas Friedman, in his book "The World is
Flat" reminds us that we live in a world where many of our assumptions must
change if we are to compete internationally. Mr. Strock’s longing for the good
old days when a score of 65 on a Regents exam meant 65 percent correct, is one
of those old assumptions.
The "old" Regents exam system began changing in 1996 when the Board of
Regents adopted the New York State Learning Standards in every subject area.
These Learning Standards define what students need to know and be able to do to
become competent citizens, workers and pursue further education.
questionable. Basically, the standards are a compromise among what students need
to know, what most students are capable of learning and what most teachers are
capable of teaching. Students need to know lots of things that aren’t covered by
the standards. See, generally, Modernizing
the Curriculum & Schools.
The Regents exam for each subject is developed to test key skills and concepts
of the Learning Standards. Any reader who doubts the difficulty level of the
Regents exams is invited to try taking any of the tests on our Web site (www.emsc.nysed.gov.)
These are tough exams!
read the standards and the exams. They aren’t that "tough." Anything
that all students must have a chance of mastering can’t be that tough. If
they are that tough, then exams have to be graded on a curve so enough students
pass without creating a revolt.
New York teachers, create all the test questions on the Regents exams. Some
questions are written to be more difficult than others, based on what skills
they require students to use. Before a test is administered statewide, questions
written for the test go through field-testing in classrooms across the state.
This pilot testing by actual students allows teachers to rank the questions by
level of difficulty from easiest to hardest. Teachers determine the minimum
amount of information students must know to pass each exam (set at 65). This
information is subjected to statistical analysis that determines what number of
questions right will correspond to a 65 and what number will correspond to an 85
the scaled score.
about this. Teachers write the questions and field-test them. That lets them
know the distribution of the number of students who answer 1, 2, 3 … x number
of questions correctly. Based on that and the past performance of students on
the exam, they decide how may questions students need to answer to pass. Even
after this is done, State Ed has still found the pass rates unacceptably low and
ordered the rescoring of exams, most recently the Math B exam. Whether passing
rates are set based on the results of field tests or readjusted after students
have taken the exams, the result is the same–scoring scales set to politically
correct pass rates, which may or may not be reflective of what students should
Beyond that, a test design that results in a scale score of 65% with 39% of the
questions answered correctly is psychometrically flawed. It can’t produce a bell
curve, which is assumed for statistical analyses. Without a bell curve,
statistical manipulation is required to approximate the results that would have
been produced had the exam been properly designed. This introduces a source of
error into the scoring process.
For more on how State Ed develops exams and determines scores see CAUTION:
A conversion chart differs for every test and converts the raw score to a scaled
score. This approach is fairer to students. By using a scaling method rather
than a straight percentage correct, the difficulty of each test’s questions can
be taken into consideration, ensuring that test scores mean the same thing from
year to year.
assumption seems to be that it’s not possible for teachers to write tests of
equal difficulty from year to year. Yet, it is possible for the same teachers to
identify the relative difficulty of each test and set a scale score that makes
the tests equivalent. How do they do that? They combine field tests with a
statistical model to predict how many students will correctly answer each
question and then they set a pass rate at a subjective and arbitrary level that should
produce the illusion that academic performance is improving. See NY
Makes Huge Scoring Change to 8th Grade ELA Exam.
Mr. Strock calls for honesty about test results. The State Education Department
describes how the Regents exams are scored on the web site (www.emsc.nysed.gov).
We publish not only the exams themselves, but all of the results of the Regents
exams on the annual school report cards since 1997. No other state or test
publisher provides as much information about the tests and the results It’s no
secret that our tests are tough and fair. They must be to ensure we have an edge
in our competitive world.
JAMES A. KADAMUS
The writer is Deputy Commissioner of the Office of Elementary, Middle,
Secondary and Continuing Education at The State Education Department.
Scoring of Regents is still a shuck
Carl Strock / Schenectady
(NY) Gazette Columnist
July 10, 2005
As for the scoring of Regents exams, perhaps you noticed on the letters page the
other day that no less a personage than James A. Kadamus, deputy commissioner of
the state Education Department, wrote to protest a critique of mine that
appeared in this space.
He accused me of "longing for the good old days when a score of 65 on a
Regents exam meant 65 percent correct," as if that were some horribly
quaint thing to long for, like a one-room schoolhouse with a woodstove in the
How silly of me to expect that a grade of 65 might mean 65 percent correct! How
silly of me even to expect that 65 might mean the same thing from one exam to
another, when we have such resources available to us as conversion charts and
Not possible, ladies and gentlemen, not in this time of international
competition and whatnot.
Why, the Regents exams are developed by teams of teachers, Mr. Kadamus wanted us
to know. They are field-tested on actual students, and, as he emphatically put
it, "These are tough exams!"
Which, of course, is not the point.
The point is not whether the exams are tough – I believe they are. The point is
that the scoring of them is fudged so the toughness is negated.
As indeed it must be if you think about it.
Back in 1996, when the state Board of Regents decreed that all high school
students would have to take the Regents exams instead of local exams in order to
graduate, it was obvious that something was going to have to give. You couldn’t
just all of a sudden set a higher standard or the obvious result would be that a
great many students would fail, and that would be politically unacceptable.
There would be a popular revolt.
The first thing that gave was the passing score. The Board of Regents lowered it
from 65 to 55 for a transition period of a few, years, and then they extended
the transition period.
But the main thing that gave was the scoring of the exams.
The passing grade of 65 that is being phased in can actually mean as little as
43 percent, as it meant on the "Math A" exam given last month, and it
never means 65 percent or even close to that. The highest I have found it to
mean is 60 percent, and that yielded such a dismal result on one particular test
that the Education Department had to go back and rejigger its magic chart to
make 55 equal 65.
Mr. Kadamus knows all about this, since last year it fell to his lot basically
to quell an uprising by local teachers and administrators when a passing grade
of 55 on the Math A exam for freshmen and sophomores arose out of a laughable 33
Can you imagine anyone passing an exam with a grade of 33? A lot of teachers
couldn’t either, and they protested.
Mr. Kadamus got off a memo to them, or to school superintendents, dated Feb.
4,2004, patiently explaining that the conversion chart which transmogrified 33
into a "scaled score" of 55 had been analyzed and approved by
"psychometric experts," no less, and would therefore stand.
I handed a 60-question, multiple-choice, high-school level exam to a
third-grader requiring only 20 questions to be answered correctly for high
school credit, statistically a fair number of third-graders would pass the exam
while knowing nothing about the subject being tested! Random chance plus an
occasional good guess based on test strategies or actual knowledge would produce
third-graders performing at the high school level!! In fact, State Ed should
start giving high school Regents exams to third-graders to show how good our
schools are! Please. Any test with a substantial portion of the score coming
from multiple choice questions that requires only a 33% to pass is not
psychometrically sound. When a passing score is lowered to the point where
students can pass by random chance, the test is no longer valid.
That’s how Regents exams are scored. It doesn’t matter if the passing grade
is officially 55 or 65 or what it might be, since that number is made up anyway.
It’s not a percentage, it’s not anything.
My strong suspicion is that the Education Department does whatever adjusting or
"scaling" is necessary to make the politically acceptable number of
students pass, that’s all.
If they have to reach as low as 33 percent to come up with a 55 or a 65, they do
Mr. Kadamus wrote in his letter that by performing such conversions, as they
call these devious increases, "the difficulty of each test’s questions can
be taken into consideration," but that’s bogus, and he gets a C, at best,
in the art of argumentation.
The difficulty of questions on Regents exams is already taken into account in
assigning points to them, as in any other exam. Most questions are worth two
points, some are worth three or four, and so on.
When I talk about a percentage score I mean the percentage of available points.
I mean 28 out of a possible 84 points, for example, which is 33 percent.
When you then fiddle with those percentage scores, you’re giving weight to
the difficulty twice – once for the questions and then again for how well
students do on them, which means you’re pushing scores up so more students will
pass, plain and simple.
Then you can praise yourself for meeting higher standards.
It’s not a question of me longing for anything, except maybe for basic honesty.
I would love to see a Regents exam question on this subject. An essay, maybe,
worth about 10 points.
Standards’ fraud finally exposed
A Schenectady (NY) Gazette
Letter to the Editor
July 11, 2005
It was about 10 years ago that I started telling reporters from both print and
TV media that they should investigate what was going on in the so-called
"standards raising" that-was being promoted by Education Commissioner
Mills. I tried to tell them that this was not really raising standards at
all, but a fraud being perpetrated on the people of New York by the educational
of frauds, see New
State Performance Index is a Fraud.
It was clear to most of us teachers that standards were in fact being
lowered. I had worked as a mathematics teacher for almost 30 years, but
eventually retired early, realizing that by the time that this would all come to
light, I would be well past retirement age.
I read the letter from Ms. Butterstein (June 30), about biology Regents scores,
and the column by Carl Strock (June 30) about Regents scoring in general, and
realized that maybe the time has come that the charlatans in Albany will be
I am sorry that the news media didn’t listen more closely 10 years ago when I
and a few others tried to alert them.
STANLEY L. MATHES
standards movement had something to do with setting standards but the bigger
objective was to make teaching easier by informing teachers exactly what it is
they should be teaching. I call it teaching by number–a reference to painting
by number. It doesn’t produce great art (or academic excellence) but it does
ensure that at least something productive is happening. Prior to state
standards, teachers could do almost anything they wanted and call it education,
even if students didn’t learn much and even if it produced large percentages of
high school graduates who couldn’t read or do math at an eighth-grade level.
See, e.g., Student-directed
learning is disaster for education, Worry
less about dropouts, more about learning, Flabby
theories turn middle schools into a muddle and Education’s
Regents has made a botch of things with "standards"
A Schenectady (NY) Gazette
Letter to the Editor
July 16, 2005
I must, yet again, compliment Carl Strock on his superb and cogent expose of the
Regents scoring scam, "Scoring
of Regents is still a shuck." (July 10 column).
Strock skillfully and convincingly exposed the reality of the Regents
"conversion chart" as a desperate, deceitful attempt to ".. make
the politically acceptable number of students pass." If, God forbid,
real percentages were used, the state education "standards" program
would be revealed for the miserable failure it truly is – illconceived, fatally
flawed, politically motivated; feckless at best, tragically wasteful for sure.
These are very harsh words, but justified.
The underlying assumption of the Regents plan had to be that students were
simply not trying hard enough to perform well academically; they needed to be
"motivated," even coerced, to do better. Voila! Why not force all
students in the state to pass Regents exams to graduate? And, just a little perk
for the bureaucrats in Albany, imagine the tremendous power the Regents could
wield over the teachers and administrators of every school in the state. How
brilliant, and so simple!
And, yes, let’s simply ignore the truth, that the roots of academic failure lie
deeply embedded in the souls of failing students – broken families, neglected
children, abject poverty, hopelessness, and emotional abuse. Better yet, let’s
not even identify those as problems; then we don’t have to address them. Let’s
go instead with the lack of motivation thing; then we can snap the whip and show
the people how "tough" we are.
in families improves learning, also written by Vince.
Well, folks, the results are in. The commissioner and his pinstriped cronies are
scrambling desperately to somehow cover up their dismal failure. Almost 10 years
into this "program," the best they can come up with is pathetic
"conversion charts" analyzed and approved by "psychometric
experts" to disguise the incredible failure rate.
Students who once eagerly hoped to earn a high school diploma have become
completely discouraged, robbed of the dignity and self-esteem they could have
had with a non-Regents diploma. Many teachers are no longer working on creative,
stimulating lessons; they’ve become paranoid, focusing all their efforts on
students passing the required state exams and Regents. School administrators
live in dire fear of being "identified" as leading a "school in
need of assistance" – a terrible stigma that invites the bureaucrats into
their school to "instruct" them in cleaning up their mess.
I can’t help but lament what could have been accomplished with the money and
human resources wasted on this folly. We could have employed school social
workers and psychologists to truly help our kids, provided daycare programs to
give pre-schoolers a healthy environment while single mothers worked to survive,
developed vocational programs for students with alternative talents.
How shameful! It’s time to end this farce and really help our students.
The writer is a former teacher.
got almost everything right. The thing he got wrong was the underlying
motivation for Regents testing. It wasn’t poorly motivated students; it was
poorly motivated faculties who let their own standards of academic quality slip
so low that not even politicians could ignore the thousands of students being
given diplomas with reading and math skills no better than those of
eighth-graders. It wasn’t the students who brought this pox on the schools. It
was the faculties.
Regents exams an exercise in self-deception
A Schenectady (NY) Gazette
Letter to the Editor
July 18, 2005
More often than not, I find myself at serious odds with Gazette columnist Carl
Strock’s opinions relating to public servants, whether police, firemen or
teachers. In a recent instance, however, I think he’s onto something. I am
referring to his
column of June 30 on the scoring of Regents exams in New York state.
Strock has criticized the practice by the State Education Department of using
conversion tables to interpret Regents scores, a practice which, at the extreme,
has resulted in a student score of 33 on a Regents being converted to a passing
55. He goes to the roots of this confusion as he traces the problem to the Board
of Regents’ 1996 edict requiring all students to pass specific Regents exams in
order to earn a high school diploma. The concept was that all students, when
reasonably motivated and adequately taught, can pass high-standard Regents
exams, Strock claims that the conversion table approach was devised to counter
the public dismay that would have resulted from the number of failures that
would have followed if traditional Regents scoring had continued.
The Regents exam program of my experience as a student and educator in New York
state (1940s-’70s) was geared to students of at least average, and more often
above average, academic promise. The Regents were highly demanding. The average
would squeak through in the 65 score area, a score regarded as minimal
achievement. The more successful students in the Regents program were
college-bound. Impolitic as it may be to say so, when it comes to academic
ability, there are wide differences among students from not very smart at all to
genius, with many, many stops along the way. Unlike the students in Garrison
Keillor’s fictional village of Lake
Wobegon, the students of New York state never have been and never will be
"all above average."
The state policy requiring all students to pass prescribed Regents in order to
graduate has been flawed from the get-go. I have been dismayed that
superintendents of schools and leaders of teachers’ professional groups have
prostrated themselves before this policy rather than organize a parents’ revolt
against it. This misguided policy promoted by the Board of Regents and its
commissioner of education has led public education into a stifling quagmire of
testing and preparation for testing.
New York state is not alone in fostering this debacle undermining the infinite
promise of public education. It has been a national movement promulgated by the
conservative political forces that have come to the fore in our government.
Conservative "think tank" types seeking ways of wresting power from
the liberals came up with the idea of a massive attack upon public education.
Who could defend against an onslaught of accusations that the schools are
shortchanging our children, that our children can do better than this, that our
children deserve better than this?
had no idea that improving education was just a conservative idea. Anyone
looking at students’ scores on standardized tests over the decades and the
scores produced by students in other countries knows that what was passing for
excellence in American education had fallen too low. Something had to be done
and with bipartisan and nearly unanimous support, Congress passed the No Child
Left Behind law, which mandates lots of testing.
Rote learning and teaching to the test is certainly not an entire prescription
for achieving academic excellence. However, rote learning is better than no
learning, which is what students were being served in great proportions prior to
standards’ reforms and testing. The ideas of fun, high self-esteem
and an aversion
to requiring "correct" answers so infested education that genuine
learning slowed to a crawl.
If someone’s looking for a culprit, there’s only one group to blame, and
amazingly it’s not the politicians. It’s the professional unions of the
teachers. They looked at the data and treated it too lightly. They spent too
much time on bread and butter union issues and not nearly enough time on quality
control and better academic outcomes. In other words, they gave short shrift to
their professional responsibilities, preferring to pursue higher wages for
declining performance, and by inaction invited the politicians in to do
something about education outcomes that had become intolerable.
The "no child left behind" slogan is interpreted by parents to mean,
"my kid’s every bit as smart as any other kid, and if he isn’t doing well,
there must be something wrong with the school (the teacher, the system)."
The slogan implies fallaciously that all the children of USA Wobegon are above
average academic ability. Sorry, but that’s just not the way that human beings
are put together.
Back in founding fathers’ days, Alexander Hamilton urged that education and
politics should flow in widely separate channels. Contrarily, the national
conservative political movement has made public education a sacrificial lamb in
pursuit of its own ends. It has exploited and manipulated public education and
led us into a morass of self-deception. When will we as a people wake up to this
group has worked to insert politics into education more than liberals. See,
Agendas in Public Schools. However, I completely agree with Hamilton.
Education and politics should be as separate as religion and government. And
that means the government has to get out of the education business. Of course,
that won’t happen, most importantly because liberals don’t want it to happen. I
have repeatedly attempted to show that government-run
public schools are fundamentally inconsistent with the First Amendment. The
proper role of government is to provide the funding so every child can be
educated, not to run the education institutions. As long as government runs K-12
schools, you can be assured that politics will play a large and increasing role.
DONALD J. SAYLES