Students cheat to earn better grades and teachers cheat to earn better grades for their students. Then there is institutionalized cheating—or, more accurately, lying about grades.
In another post (“Cheater, Cheater—That’s My Teacher!”, November 21, 2011), I mentioned that in New York, where state Regents exams are graded by the kids’ teachers, there are “far more students passing by just a point or two than failing by the same margin.” That statistically unlikely result indicates graders are giving their students the benefit of the doubt. When English Regents exams are graded, a kid’s teacher will ask a colleague to “find” a few more points on the essays.
But the New York State Department of Education has already been helping out. In August of 1995, Richard Mills became the new State Commissioner of Education. Mills was a wild-eyed reformer who ticked off administrators, teachers and students by demanding more rigorous curriculum and testing. He trashed the Regents Competency Tests—easier state tests for Non-Regents students—and declared that all high school students would have to sit for tougher Comprehensive Exams.
Exams in all major subject areas were revised. For English, the exam doubled in length, to three-hour sessions on two consecutive days. Kids now had to write four essays instead of two, and answer multiple choice questions relating to each essay. Gone were multiple choice questions on usage and research, and gone were literature multiple choice questions. Grading rubrics were supplied and teachers were expected to undergo “norming” sessions so they’d apply the rubrics consistently. These sessions were not always held, nor has the grading been consistent.
But even supposing that all teachers in an English Department DID use the rubrics consistently, grade manipulation was built in. Here’s an “anchor” paper—a sample response to an essay prompt provided by NYS to train graders:
I really feel that you should vote for the bill banning the use of vending machines in all New York schools. Vending machines in school only just encourage kids to eat unhealthy. It also conflicts with the teaching of good nutritional habits that school teaches. If they had vending machines at all it should sell healthy food. Childhood obesity is also on the rise all across the country. Vending machines have become a principal source for extra money and that encourages schools to put vending machines in the school.
In addition to the National School Lunch Program, 94% of high schools offer A la carte offering in addition to what the schools offer. To argue my point I feel if vending machines are in the school at all, there should be healthy items to choose from. Healthy concerns are there because many of today’s youth are losing the battle with obesity and schools are adding to the fire.
According to the Scoring Key And Rating Guide, this essay deserved an overall 3 out of 6 on the rubric. It “Conveys a basic understanding of the documents,” “Develops ideas briefly, using some details from the documents,” “Suggests a focus, but lacks organization, consisting of two paragraphs of loosely related ideas” “Relies on basic vocabulary,” and “Exhibits occasional errors in punctuation and capitalization that do not hinder comprehension.”
Some of us wondered about the cavalier overlooking of gaffes including “only just encourage,” “teaching … habits that school teaches,” “If they had vending machines … it should sell …,” and “schools offer A la carte offering in addition to what the schools offer.” We didn’t even bring up the mixed metaphor (adding to the fire of a losing battle), or mention that the second paragraph repeats ideas from the first paragraph without developing those ideas any further. But going by the rubric, the essay got a 3.
According to the “Chart for Determining the Final Examination Score,” a student who scored a 3 on each of the four essays, and scored 18 out of 26 on the Multiple-Choice items, would end up with a 56 on the 2007 English Regents. So, hey, the kid flunks! NYS IS demanding more rigorous standards.
Except the kid DIDN’T flunk, because, along with the “tougher” tests (the English exam really wasn’t more difficult, just longer) and the rubrics, the NYS Department of Education provided conversion charts that gave a breathtaking new meaning to “grading on a curve.” For the English exam, the scam was simple—55, not 65 was passing! Similar grade inflation occurred on other Regents Exams, most infamously the Math A and B Exams. The maximum possible score is 84, so you’d assume 84 correct would earn 100, and 36 correct would flunk a kid with a 42. But the NYS Department of Education used a test-specific conversion chart, not a strict percentage chart, so on the June 2007 exam, a student earning 35/84 got a grade of 65! (Koss). More recently, a kid could score only 31/84 and still pass!
Meanwhile, when parents checked the newspaper for test results, they’d see that, for example, 87% of Sachem North students had passed the English Regents exam. But maybe 10%-20% of those kids had “passed” with grades between 55-64! And imagine the disparity between the PUBLISHED passing percentage for Math A and the ACTUAL (65+) passing percentage! Imagine thousands of NYS high school graduates proudly waving their “Regents” (i.e. Academic) diplomas and going off to college with seriously deficient skills.
But wouldn’t colleges expose this Big Lie? Wouldn’t many of those falsely-credentialed grads flunk out quickly? Not likely. Colleges want tuition money, so they’ve developed an entire “Developmental” industry—remedial courses in Reading, Writing, and Math that kids pay for without receiving course credit. Of course, many poorly-prepared kids DO drop out of college before completion. In New York State, in 2009, the percentage of six-year graduation rates for Bachelors Degree candidates was only 59.2%. (“Graduation Rates.”)
So, even without teachers fudging grades and students paying ringers, the testing system itself is corrupt. It enables politicians and administrators to talk about “raising the bar” while actually lowering it. Pols and parents demand quantified education, states spend millions on tests to provide it, and everyone basks in the glow of self-deception.
“Graduation Rates.” NCHEMS Information Center for Higher Education Policymaking and Analysis. http://www.higheredinfo.org/dbrowser/?level=nation&mode=graph&state=0&submeasure=24
Koss, Steve. “NY State Math A Regents Exams – The Soft Bigotry (and Political Payoff) of Lowered Expectations.” NYC Public School Parents. 24 Jan 2008. http://nycpublicschoolparents.blogspot.com/2008/01/ny-state-math-regents-exams-soft.html
Maestri, Melissa Amy. “The Myth of a Multicultural Curriculum: An Analysis of New York State U.S. History Regents” The History Teacher, Vol. 39, No. 3. May 2006. http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/ht/39.3/maestri.html