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The Answer Sheet: The Real Story Behind Drop in Scores on N.Y. Regents Exams

Two educators in New York did an analysis of scores on the June 2013 New York State Regents exams and found something  interesting that somehow never made it into news stories, including a recent “exclusive” by one New York City newspaper. Read about it what it was below in the post by Carol Burris and John Murphy. Burris, the award-winning principal of  South Side High School in the Rockville Centre School District,  has been chronicling the flawed implementation of school reform and the Common Core State Standards in a series of posts on this blog (here, and here and here and here and here, for example).  Murphy is the assistant principal of South Side High School in charge of the school’s English department.

By Carol Burris and John Murphy

There they go again.

The New York Daily News ran another EXCLUSIVE report on those sneaky New York City educators who are cheating.  The headline read, “EXCLUSIVE: State test scores drop after teachers are barred from grading exams from their own schools.”  The article describes how the English Regents exam scores “plummeted” when “the city cracked down on grade fudging teachers,” which is why, according to the story’s authors, a “stunning” 373 schools out of 490 had their passing rates drops on the English Language Arts exam.

Now let’s examine the facts. Overall, the New York City drop in the passing rate was 8 percentage points, which is characterized in the article as a “statistical leap.”  It is not such a “leap”, however, when it is put in context.  The drop was substantial in fewer than 15 percent of New York City high schools, while 24 percent had their passing rates either go up or remain the same. The latter is pretty good considering that the passing rate across the state went down.  The state passing rates dropped by 5 percent for the 2013 ELA Regents.  But is the change in scoring, which disallows teachers from grading their own students’ tests, the cause of the drop?

First, let’s talk about the English Language Arts Regents exam that was given in June 2013. Right after the June exam, the high school principals’ listserv was abuzz with complaints. The state Education Department made it more difficult to pass and to achieve mastery by changing the scoring rubric.  We knew before one paper was scored that the scores would drop.

The English Language Arts Regents exam consists of 25 multiple-choice questions worth 25 points, and 3 writing assignments that total 10 points. There is a grid that determines the final score—the x axis consists of scores for the writing section (1-10), the multiple choice scores from 0-25 are on the y axis.  Therefore, the grid consists of 286 possible scores—one for every combination of multiple choice and writing scores.  In June of 2012, there were 70 possible combinations by which you could pass the test.  In June  2013, that number decreased to 53, with higher multiple-choice and essay scores required to pass and to score at the level of mastery (a score of 85 percent or above).  The state claims that the change occurred because the exam was easier.  “Not so,” said the English teachers in my high school.

In districts with many high-needs students who hover around passing, it is no surprise that the drop in the passing rate was greater than in more affluent districts.  And while the decline varied, the passing rate on the English exam dropped in low- and high-needs districts alike.  Rural schools saw their passing rates decline, so did schools in the suburbs.

Second, the new state regulations regarding grading were not restricted to the English Regents.   It was a requirement for every Regents exam.  For some Regents exams, passing rate stayed the same or went up.

For example, the U.S. History and Government Regents examination also combines multiple choice questions with essays.  The New York City passing rate for that exam decreased by one point, while the overall rate for the state stayed the same.  The Global History and Geography Regents passing rate stayed the same for both the city and the entire state.  The Living Environment passing rate declined by three points in the state, and by one point in New York City.  The Algebra Regents passing rates rose for both the city and the state. Every exam has an open-ended response section that requires teacher judgment.

Truth be told, Regents passing rates go up and down.  Cohorts of students differ and the difficulty of the tests, as well as the rigor of the grading rubrics, are uneven.   Because students must now pass these tests to graduate, it should give us reason to pause and consider the effects of using tests for high stakes purposes.  June’s English test was harder to pass, and no doubt that cost some students their diploma.

As we did our analysis of New York State data for this blog post, we did notice one anomaly.  There was one group of schools whose passing rates tumbled on all five required Regents exams.   On the English Language Arts Regents the passing rate dropped by 12 points!  Passing rates even dropped on the Algebra Regents, where there was a 3 point increase in the passing rate across the state. How did the reporters miss this story?

The schools that had consistent drops last year were New York’s charter schools.

We have no idea whether or not charter school teachers “fudged” when they were allowed to grade their own students’ tests. We would never accuse them. Test score variance from year to year is far more complicated than that. But we find it interesting that the cracker jack analysis of the Daily News did not uncover that story.

Will there be an EXCLUSIVE: Charter school Regents scores plummet when state grading rules change?  Don’t hold your breath.

 (Correction: Algebra scores went up 3 points, not 10, as an earlier version said.)

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John Murphy

John Murphy is an assistant principal at South Side High School in New York. He was recognized by the Harvard Club and Phi Delta Kappa for his teaching and outsta...

Carol C. Burris

Carol Corbett Burris became Executive Director of the Network for Public Education Foundation in August 2015, after serving as principal of South Side High School...

Valerie Strauss

Valerie Strauss is the Washington Post education writer.