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Thursday, August 5, 2010

Revised NYSED Grade 3-8 Math Exam Cut Scores: Say WHAT?

NYS Education Commissioner David M. Steiner made waves last week by announcing a new, toughened regime for the state's annual Grade 3 - 8 standardized exams in Math and English Language Arts (ELA). Through an NYSED press release, Steiner assures the public that future exams and their "proficiency" (i.e., Level 3) cut scores will be set at a level to "indicate whether a student is on track to pass Regents exams and to go on to higher education prepared to do college-level work." As one mark of that new standard, a separate NYSED press release defines the new Grade 8 cut score as "being set at a level that offers students a 75% chance that they will score at a college-ready level (75 in English and 80 in Math) on their Regents exams in high school." New cut scores at Grades 3 - 7 will be developmentally supportive of achieving this Grade 8 objective.

Before we all jump for joy at this new level of academic rigor, sure to put us on an internationally competitive footing with Singapore, China, Korea, Finland, Germany, etc., let's step back a minute and consider what this standard actually means, at least for Math.

First, the only Regents math exam required for students to pass in order to graduate high school is the Integrated Algebra I test, generally taken by ninth graders but frequently taken by middle- to advanced-level eighth graders before leaving middle school. The level of math involved is typical of that found in seventh or eighth grade in most of the countries mentioned previously. So we are predicating our NYS public education definition of and target for college readiness as ninth grade math, the only one actually required by the state for a high school diploma. Not on Geometry (10th grade) or Algebra II/Trigonometry (11th grade), or pre-calculus (12th grade), just on 8th/9th grade math. How many high school math teachers in NY State would classify a student as mathematically "college ready" based on the state's Integrated Algebra I curriculum?

Second, and even more disheartening, is Mr. Steiner's assurance through NYSED that such readiness is based on the student achieving a grade of 80 on the Integrated Algebra I exam. In the most recent such exam, in June 2010, NYS public school students needed to achieve a raw score of 53 points from a maximum of 87 to be awarded a scaled score of 80. In other words, in the NYS Regents' world of today, a 60.9% (53 out of 87) is an 80. Thus, what most sentient adults would consider a failing grade of 61 on an eighth/ninth grade math exam is being touted as the NYS definition of college readiness. Maybe for Monroe Business College or the online University of Phoenix, or perhaps Faber College -- home campus in the movie "Animal House" -- but hardly for the university image most of us conjure from the word "college."

To illustrate just how perverse this Regents' addiction to raw-score-to-scaled-score conversion really is, consider the following. A student taking the Integrated Algebra I Regents exam in June 2010 received a final (scaled) score of 80 by earning 53 points out of 87 (60.9%). To receive a final score of 85, however, that same student would have had to earn not just five or six more points, but fifteen more!! That's right -- a raw score of 53 out of 87 points possible netted the student an 80, but he/she needed a raw score of 68 (78.2%) to get an 85! The raw score difference between a student with an 80 and one with an 85 is thus 17 percentage points, a 61% versus a 78%.

Most working high school math teachers in NY State today would probably vouch that this last level, 68 out of 87 on the Integrated Algebra I Regents exam, forms the minimum baseline for any sort of real readiness in math, whether at the college level or simply for the next higher levels of high school math.

While it's laudable for Mr. Steiner to raise the previous low bar for the state's gateway math exam, it's a shame that he has elected to couch the new one in the equally misleading and dishonest terms of "college readiness." Parents who accept this claim on behalf of their eighth and ninth grade children are going to be sorely surprised four or five years later when many of those same children are taking remedial math classes in college.

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