Thursday, January 24, 2008

NY State Math A Regents Exams – The Soft Bigotry (and Political Payoff) of Lowered Expectations

I taught high school Math at NYC Lab School in the mid- to late-1990s, during the days of Sequential Math I, II, and III – before the advent of the soon-to-disappear Math A and Math B. Having spent time in the last 2 –3 weeks helping my 10th grade son prepare for his January Math A exam, I was appalled by the degree to which expectations for high school mathematics competency in New York State (and consequently NYC) has been diminished. The phenomenon President Bush often cites about “the soft bigotry of low expectations” has indeed become a reality in New York State.

The Math A exam consists of 30 multiple choice questions, each worth two points, plus nine extended answer questions variously worth 2, 3, or 4 points. The maximum possible score is 84, but conversion to a 100-point scale is done by a test-specific conversion chart rather than a strict percentage basis. On the June 2007 exam, for example, a student needed to earn only 35 of those 84 points (41.7%) to earn a passing grade of 65. On today’s January 2008 exam, the cutoff dropped again, to 34 out of 84. In other words, 40.5% is now the new 65%.

But wait, it gets worse. Suppose a student knew the answers today to 13 of the 30 multiple choice questions and blindly guesses at the other 17 (assume for the moment that he or she cannot answer any of the extended answer questions). This student has a 1/4 chance of guessing correctly on each of those 17 remaining multiple choice questions, so on average he or she can get 4.25 more questions correct by just guessing. Seventeen correct answers (13 known + 4 guessed) yields 34 points, and that converts to a 65 final score. Yet the student only really “knew the math” for 13 questions (good for 26 points). The 8 points received from guessing represented 23.5% of his or her passing grade total of 34. Meanwhile, the student’s “knowledge level” grade of 31.0% (26/84) has netted him or her a 66. So a paltry 31% is the new 65%.

Compare this to the pre-NCLB days of Sequential I, II, and III exams. Those tests contained 18 short answer questions (2 points each) and 17 multiple choice questions (2 points each), from which students were required to choose and answer 30 questions. A series of extended answer questions accounted for 40 more points. On those exams, scaled to 100 points, students were required to earn 65 points to get a 65. A student forced to guess on all the multiple choice questions could expect on average to get 4.25 correct (1/4 of 17), good for 8.5 points. Blind guessing would then, on average, gain the student just 13.1% (8.5/65) of his or her passing grade. Compared to the Math A student who could pass today’s Regents exam with a knowledge level grade of 31%, the earlier Sequential I student needed on average a “knowledge level” grade of 56.5%, a level 82.3% higher than today’s students.

This lowering of the mathematics bar for New York’s public high school students offers yet one more example of how standards and expectations have been dropped as a result of No Child Left Behind. In fact, the difference is so substantial as to call into question any claims by the NYSED or the DOE about increases in the Regents mathematics pass rates and, by extension, State and City graduation rates. A look at the Math A grade conversion charts since 2004 further substantiates this view.

Raw scores (out of 84) needed for a passing grade of 65%

Math A – January exams -------- 37 ----------- 34 ---------- 33 ----------- 35 ---------- 34
Math A – June exams ------------ 37 ----------- 36 ---------- 35 ----------- 35
Math A – August exams --------- 36 ----------- 34 ---------- 34 ----------- 34

Math B – June exams ------------ 45 ----------- 48 ---------- 47 ----------- 47

Where it took a raw score of 36 or 37 (out of 84) to get a 65% final grade in 2004, it now takes just a 34 or 35 (with a low of just 33 in January 2006). By comparison, the raw score cutoff for passing the Math B exam, where there is far less pressure related to State graduation requirements, has remained virtually unchanged over four years. Any system that allows government to decide where they will set the bar on each exam and then take political credit for improved performance must be inherently suspect.

Subjected to the same competency standards as students were a decade ago for Sequential Math I, a sizable percentage of today’s high school students would likely fail to meet the mathematics portion of their graduation requirements. We’re not necessarily educating better, just lowering the bar. The New York miracle in high school mathematics is just as ethereal (and phony) as George W. Bush’s now discredited “Texas Miracle” when he was that State’s Governor.

[Admittedly, this discussion ignores the Part 2, 3, and 4 extended answer questions. More on this aspect of the Math A exams in another posting. Note, however, that multiple choice questions (generally less demanding, amenable to guessing, and more easily copied or otherwise communicated from student to student) constitute 60 of Math A’s 84 points (71.4%) compared to, at most, 34% (34/100) of the earlier Sequential Math I exams.]


Pissedoffteacher said...

Everything you wrote about the Math A regents is true. I have been saying the same things for years.

I am a math teacher in a NYC high school. A few years ago, Ihad a group of seniors who only passed one math class since ninth grade. My job was to get them through the regents. I taught them how to use the calculator to get the multiple choice questions correct and 27 out of 28 passed. A few learned some math along the way, but most just got through.

The sad thing is that many parents think their kids actually know something when they get a 75 on that exam. The whole thing is awful and I don't see any end.

The new algebra regents is going to be very difficult. I imagine the passing cut off will be even lower than that of the math A exam.

Steve Koss said...

Dear Pissed Off,

I was never the world's biggest fan of standardized tests or multiple choice questions (I never asked a single multiple choice question in six years of math teaching). However, as standardized tests go, I did feel that the Sequential Math Regents exams were reasonable measures of competence in the material covered by those curricula.

Almost without exception, my strong students did well, my middle students scored from 65 - 80 or so, and my weak students struggled to pass and sometimes didn't. There was really no way for a weak student to pass through lucky guessing, and everyone needed at least a modest level of facility with half or more of the curriculum to pass.

Now I look at the Math A exams and am astonished at 60 out of 84 points being multiple choice, the absurd degree of score scaling, and the greater simplicity of the questions. In my opinion, NYSED claiming that these tests reflect mathematical competence is nothing more than educational malpractice.

Pissedoffteacher said...

I spent the day marking Math A exams. Almost every kid passed. There were many papers with no parts II, III or IV.

We used to be proud of our regents results. I remember feeling good when kids passed. Now, I feel nothing.

The Math B exam was very difficult, but the cut for passing was pretty low, although not as low as Math A. The kids that did not get discouraged and quit should have done fine.

Steve Koss said...

I understand what you mean -- I felt that the old Sequential 1, 2, and 3 exams worked as at least reasonable measurers of curriculum competency and that a passing grade actually related to a "passing" level of knowledge. I never had very many surprises on those tests, where a student who was performing at well under 65 in my classroom suddenly passed with a 65 or 70. Occasionally someone with a 55-60 might eke out a 65 on the Regents, but I usually knew those students and was aware of their or their parents efforts to make a push for the Regents (via tutors, extra help from me after school, etc.).

I'm no longer teaching, but from what I could see prepping my son for yesterday's Math A, these tests are very substantially easier to pass and far less reflective of a student's readiness for the next level of mathematics study.

It's truly a shame what appears to have happened, truly unconscionable. We have government to thank, starting with Bush and NCLB and the Regents who caved in to that agenda. At least in the area of math, we now have a lost generation who are grossly unprepared for college level math -- and parents who think their children are indeed prepared.

Anonymous said...

It's the same with the English Regents exam. They created a very difficult exam with the passing "raw score" so low that all you really need to pass is a pulse. If a student gets most ofthe multiple choice questions correct, then they basically don't have to write more than a poorly written paragraph for each of the four essays. Students get "4's" and "5's" on essays (the top score is "6") that are rife with spelling errors, grammatical errors, incoherent thoughts, etc.

I know of one ESL student who cannot answer the question "How are you?" but who passed the regents exam. It is such a farce.

Pissedoffteacher said...

I happened to be sitting in the library while the English AP was going over the marking of essays.

She said that an essay would get a 4, even if it was hard to understand and the teacher had to struggle to make sense out of it.

Standards are low everywhere.

fishje61 said...

I have been teaching math in a first-ring suburb of Buffalo for 14 years after teaching 6 years in a highly affluent district further out in the suburbs.

Steve said everything that I have been saying since 1999 about this farce of an exam!

It is nothing more than a way to get inner city schools and some first-ring suburbs a higher passing rate and potentially a lower drop out rate.

Initially, I was happy to see that SED was going back to what once worked: Algebra, Geometry, and then Algebra II/Trig. Then it became painfully clear that the dreaded scaled scores were going to remain and I sunk back to my ill feelings for the designers of this so-called "better system".

Our country was once #1 in the world in math and science and at the time, New York State had 3 well-defined math courses for high school and 3 exams that accurately reflected their content. And what's more, they were worth 100 points and the students needed exactly 65% or more correct on every exam, year in, and year out in order to pass.

Then we got away from the system that worked because we had a new Commissioner that had "vision". Vision that must have included a vision of sinking standards and many other countries by-passing the US in mathematics.

Well, his vision has come true, hasn't it?

It's a shame that the people that should be reading this information from those of us in the trenches, are not reading. Instead, they listen to visionaries and psychomatricians, whatever that is!

Keep it simple, SED. Bring back the system that worked, as you appear to be doing. But stop dumbing down the standards by making it possible for a good guesser to pass your exams. The system is definitely broken if a student can pass a Math A exam without even looking at Parts 2, 3, and 4!

Stop trying to save your own political butts and instead, hold our students accountable at a respectable level!

Anonymous said...

The graphic is priceless, too.

Unknown said...

Keep in mind that the overall political theme over the past few years has fallen under the title of "narrowing the gap". When this debate started the naive in the public (including me) felt that there would finally be a push to get the low achievers to learn more and perform better.
Unfortunately, what happened was a "bait and switch" curriculum with a new round of pseudo-tests geared primarily to insuring that the top achievers aren't readily identified and over time would disappear.
In the poltical world some people would come off smelling like a rose. So what if the US economy and future go into the toilet in the process?
The up-and-coming societies and countries are bending over backwards to get their top achievers to be more and more successful, while here in this country we are killing ours.

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Anonymous said...

I took the Math A regents about a week ago. Its really easy to pass as you have all said. Im good at math and it frustrates me because the rest of the kids in my class could care less so they make everything alot easier so everyone can pass, ive had a 100 in math almost all year. Next year im taking accelerated and maybe it will be different.

Anonymous said...

I am a parent of two NYC high school students, one with a physical disability who has experienced the successes and failures of the NYC BOE and the other who has just been accepted into one of the specialized high schools and has had incredible NYC teachers all his life. One thing I have come to realize is that NYC has been one city to focus all their attention on those students who have the highest potential to succeed while the ones who really need the skills of the best teachers are left to learn on their own. As a parent, I have completely taken control of my children's education and even became the teacher at one point. I believe if more parents get involved and stay involved, we can rebuild the education system here in NYC. However,the economy makes it so that we who are working class/poor cannot stay involved because we have to work two and three jobs to make ends meet.The best way to handle this is to ditch the luxuries(face it, our children are spoiled and lazy) and sacrifice to invest in the future of our children.My parents were immigrants and so we were very poor. I grew up in the 80's and I graduated from HS in 1993(ranking 30 in a class of 800).I am now becoming a nurse and my husband is also a nurse.I believe as a parent we must teach our children the values we learned and have higher expectations so that our teachers can have higher expectations! But it must begin at home. Parents today are giving up on their children. So why do we expect the BOE to care? Get involved and stay involved-

Catherine Johnson said...

This post is terrifically helpful -- thanks so much for taking the time to write it up.

I had a similar experience when I took one of the Math A exams myself and then looked at how different arrangements of answers would have affected my score.

Of course, I had no way of judging how difficult the test is. (I've been teaching myself math for 4 years in order to reteach math to my son. We've finally given up on our local public school and have enrolled him in a Jesuit High School. The head of the math department there is a middle aged woman who seems to be a happy version of "pissed off"! She is fantastic.)

The Regents exams are (or were?) the saving grace of NY public education. There's an economist at Cornell who about 10 years ago showed that you could directly attribute a significantly higher SAT average for NY state students to the Regents exams.

Anonymous said...

Hi I'm a student in new York state and math is my best subject. I'm also in 10th grade, but in my freshman year I slacked off so much that my teacher put me In intensive math. Once in there I didn't get below a 95% on tests and because of that they allowed me to take the regnts and my intensive course midterm. The midterm was harder and longer than the regents and I feel dumb becuase I know all this stuff and I can't excell

Anonymous said...

Ok listen to this.. i see no point in the tests. if you look the schools push math and science. reason for, is that they can get the smart kids gt them into college and than have them work for the government if there great. Now in the government they will create bigger better weapons.i see no point in them and they should just get rid of your mind and mine we know that every kid could do very well if they actually tried. i say they should just get kids to take tests the teachers make up because regents are worthless.....

Anonymous said...

I'm a student in New York State and jsut finished my 9th grade math. I am one of the highest ranking students in my class and had a 91-94 all year in math. So when Regent time came around, I went to all the review classes and felt prepared to do awsome on this test. But, the test was incredibly hard! The creators pick things that we have learned, but choose the hardest question they can think of to test our knowledge, which causes poeple to do wrong. Also, everyone goes near crazy by the time regents come around becuase almost everyone has different tests to be ready for and cannot focus on just one alone. And, not all teachers across New York State are worthy of even calling themselves decent teachers. Perhaps it is not the students' fault for not doing great on Regents, but the teacher's lack of strategy and knowledge. So, "Pissed Off", I feel like I am coming to the conclusion that you are an insenitive, single minded pserson who doesn't understand a high schooler's point of view and feelings about tests that are so important.

irvington public school student said...

i am in 8th grade accelerated math and i got a 93 on the math regents in 2009 and thaught it was easy but i made careless mistakes, i also go to an an incredible public school were more than half of the eight graders tood the math regents and all passed, if your in 9th grade and didnt pass you should retake the coarse because it is not hard at all topass. it is hard to fail it considering the huge curve.

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Sara Smith said...

Being a Mathematician I think you are closer to thoughts of every person who have some experience of Maths teaching. Here I would like to add parents or guardian of week students should Attends school teacher and parent meeting to consider these issue. Nice post.

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Anonymous said...

no one cares