Testing Chaos Grips Public Schools
New York State has recently acknowledged statistics that show that 75% of New York State students graduate high school, but only 35% of that number is "college-ready." Similar statistics are noted in many states. What is this alarming disconnect leading to? NY State will begin requiring more difficult Regents exams for its high school freshmen and juniors. (The Regents are exams in New York State where students statewide demonstrate the attainment of minimum competencies in the subjects tested.) This move is another giant step into whirling chaos occasioned by the adjustment and readjustment of tests and test scoring.
Starting next year with the English and Algebra 1 exams, more difficult exams will be put in place. It is assumed that with more difficult exams, schools and teachers will be forced to have higher expectations and teach more demanding courses. However, the question of what a "more difficult test" will actually test is still up for grabs. And one must also ask if more difficult courses will lead to more learning or only to more failures. Putting aside the dubious value of a rubric like "college-ready," one can see the collapse that has emerged in terms of establishing "standards" for students, and in turn using standardized test scores to evaluate teachers (up to 40% of their evaluation in New York).
Let's look at the history. The original Regents exams of 60-70 years ago were at one point in time broken into two exams -- an easier RCT and a Regents exam. Then scoring adjustments were made to both of these to make passing easier. In addition, scrubbing of grades (rereading low-score essay questions with a view to raising the scores) became standard practice, and the scope of scrubbing was widened. Further, this writer was witness at one school to the erasing of grades and substituting of higher grades on a regular basis year after year (which erasing was reported, but to no avail).
Then the questions were made easier as the rate of passing was still too low to satisfy the politicians. At the point that the questions were made easier, a large number of tenured teachers at Brooklyn Tech HS in New York City, a special high school for gifted students, sent a letter of complaint to the New York Board of Regents detailing what was wrong with the new questions in the global history and U.S. history exams and complaining that the new format represented an unacceptable lowering of standards. The Board of Regents did not even have the courtesy to reply to the letter.
At the same time as questions were changed, scoring strategies changed again -- for example, in social studies. In the multiple-choice questions (50 in all), each question correctly answered is not weighted equally. The first 30 questions answered correctly get more weight than each subsequent question. This is to make it easier to pass the exam but less easy to get higher and higher scores.
Throughout all those years, it was regularly reported in the press that the Regents grades were well below those of the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress), although no high school students in New York City were ever required to take the NAEP standardized tests. Then, in an attempt to end scrubbing, the DOE decided not to have teachers from the same high school grade their students' Regents exams, but shipped those students' exams to other high schools for grading under more controlled circumstances. Also, during the past ten years, the RCTs were eliminated, and the Regents were made easier, supposedly somewhere between the level of difficulty of the previous RCTs and that of the previous Regents.
We have a picture of continuous readjustment of test difficulty and test grading. Easier tests with harder grading, harder tests with easier grading, easier tests with easier grading, and harder tests with harder grading.
Not only is this a chaos of adjustment and readjustment, but one must wonder if the questions on the tests were properly normed. Test questions are required to be piloted over a number of real-time test-taking situations in order to have the answers evaluated statistically for their reliability for use in a larger population. With the frequency of changes in test "difficulty" and test-grading, one can only wonder if the proper procedures for standardized test-creation were followed.
Now, add one additional ingredient: evaluating teachers on the basis of these test results. Does it make sense? You will not only have the chaos of not knowing whether the questions and answering parameters are fair, rational, or based on a proper standard of what is in fact a standard, but then they will be factoring in and adjusting scores for such variables as student history of scores on standardized tests (including results of tests where the tests and scoring were themselves not standardized), student socio-economic levels, student races, and possibly student attendance and lateness records.
Upshot: from beginning to end, we no longer can know what a student in a given subject at a given grade should know. We cannot determine if an individual student is or is not college-ready based on said tests. We are losing sight of or have lost sight of the purpose and goals of a high school education as far as knowledge and related competencies go, and instead of becoming more objective and "scientific," we, more than ever, are flying by personal opinion -- also known as "the seat of our pants."
Mr. Ludwig is a Harvard master teacher who taught in New York City's high schools for 20+ years. He served on the Editorial Board of the Harvard Educational Review and has been listed multiple times in Who's Who Among America's High School Teachers. He is the author of numerous articles. Recently, Mr. Ludwig published a memoir of his childhood years growing up in Philadelphia.