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Diane Ravitch’s Blog: Who Set the Passing Marks for the Common Core Tests? A Design for Failure

The passing marks (cut scores) on the Smarter Balanced Assessment were set last November. They were set in such a way that most students were certain to “fail.” The SBAC predicted that most students would fail. The executive director, Joe Wilhoit, quoted in the article below, predicted that “over time, the performance of students will improve.” Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. It is a dirty trick to play on students. The cut scores are close to the “proficient” achievement level in NAEP. In twenty-three years of testing the states, Massachusetts is the only state in the nation in which 50% of students reached the proficient level. That indicates that it will be many years–if ever–until half of the students are able to reach these absurdly high cut scores. If they are used for promotion and graduation in the future, most students will not be promoted and will not graduate.

Catherine Gewertz of Education Week wrote:

In a move likely to cause political and academic stress in many states, a consortium that is designing assessments for the Common Core State Standards released data Monday projecting that more than half of students will fall short of the marks that connote grade-level skills on its tests of English/language arts and mathematics.

The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium test has four achievement categories. Students must score at Level 3 or higher to be considered proficient in the skills and knowledge for their grades. According to cut scores approved Friday night by the 22-state consortium, 41 percent of 11th graders will show proficiency in English/language arts, and 33 percent will do so in math. In elementary and middle school, 38 percent to 44 percent will meet the proficiency mark in English/language arts, and 32 percent to 39 percent will do so in math.

Level 4, the highest level of the 11th grade Smarter Balanced test, is meant to indicate readiness for entry-level, credit-bearing courses in college, and comes with an exemption from remedial coursework at many universities. Eleven percent of students would qualify for those exemptions.

The establishment of cut scores, known in the measurement field as “standard-setting,” marks one of the biggest milestones in the four-year-long project to design tests for the common standards. It is also the most flammable, since a central tenet of the initiative has been to ratchet up academic expectations to ensure that students are ready for college or good jobs. States that adopted the common core have anticipated tougher tests, but the new cut scores convert that abstract concern into something more concrete.

Smarter Balanced is one of two main state consortia that are using $360 million in federal funds to develop common-core tests. The other group, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, is waiting until next summer—after the tests are administered—to decide on its cut scores. Smarter Balanced officials emphasized that the figures released Monday are estimates, and that states would have “a much clearer picture” of student performance after the operational test is given in the spring.

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Diane Ravitch

Diane Ravitch is Research Professor of Education at New York University and a historian of education. She is the Co-Founder and President of the Network for Publi...