Monday, September 14, 2009

Mastering the Old Standards

Talk about confusing! The more the state school tests are examined, the more confusing the question becomes over their reliability. The latest comes from today's NY Times story that highlights once again that the current crop of exams don't really set the academic bar all that high: "For many students, bungling more than half the questions on a test would mean an F and all that comes with it — months of remedial work, irksome teachers and, perhaps, a skimpy allowance. But on New York State’s math exam this year, seventh graders who correctly answered just 44 percent of questions were rewarded with a passing grade."

The importance of this low bar-aside from the obvious false positive concerning the relative achievement levels of our school kids-is how they're being used by the Bloomberg campaign: "In New York City, which saw some of the largest gains, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has used the scores as evidence of his successful leadership of the schools. The jump in passing rates also helped 97 percent of the city’s schools earn A’s or B’s on their Department of Education report cards this year. The mayor also has repeatedly pledged to hold back students who fail the test and do not meet even Level 2, a minimal standard. But the number of right answers needed to reach Level 2 has also dropped, to the point that on some tests, a student could randomly guess and still stand a good chance of moving on to the next grade."

How can we hold the mayor accountable for the results of his vaunted school reforms, if the measures used are so faulty? But wait to you here the explanation for this lowered bar coming from state educators: "State education officials say that they have not made it easier to pass the tests, and that the scoring thresholds have dropped for a simple reason: the test questions themselves have actually become harder. As a result, they have reduced the number of correct answers required to pass some exams to make the tests comparable over the years."

Huh? In our view, if you're making the tests harder, it should be because you want to hold the kids to a higher-more meaningful-standard; something that is made sport of if you then proceed to lower the passing grade. Which leads to the following logical questions: "At a time when the tests are assuming an unprecedented role in classrooms across the state — used for everything from analyzing student deficiencies to determining which educators deserve cash bonuses — the debate underscores a central question: How accurate are the exams in measuring student learning and progress, and what skills should a passing grade reflect?"

What a mess! And what we need now more than ever is a thorough review of the entire testing regime-otherwise, the whole mayoral control structure will continue to resemble a house of cards. This is underscored by the following comments from Chancellor Tisch: "Merryl H. Tisch, the chancellor of the State Board of Regents, said she supported lifting the score required to pass because, she said, the tests had become too predictable. Federal exams, she noted, do not reflect the same gains in learning over the past several years that state English and math tests do. (Some attribute this to the fact that federal tests are not modeled on state standards, so students might be tested on skills they have not yet mastered.)"

Or, perhaps, the federal tests are as easily taught towards-as are the state exams that Diane Ravitch has pointed out are so predictable that teachers simply are able-through repetition and rote learning-to constantly drill students for passing grades. Here's more confusion: "State officials said the increasing difficulty of the tests was the result of several factors. In 2006, after the results for the state math test came in, state officials determined the questions were mostly too easy, and so they sought to toughen certain areas in 2007. More recently, the questions that educators have recommended have tended to be harder, the officials said, though there was no intentional effort to increase the rigor."

Doesn't this contradict the original assertion that the passing grades were lowered because the tests became harder-an illogical move if we've ever seen one? The rest of the Times story-through little fault of its own-simply piles onto the confusion, with contradictory quotes from educators and school officials on this topic. To us, it all means that it is passed time for the auditors to be sent in to clarify and clean up the confusion. Until this is done, the Bloomberg ad campaign on the schools amounts to a blatant violation of any and all truth in advertising laws.