Much of the dismay over the recent downscaling of students' ostensible proficiency and academic readiness has come from parents, community leaders, and others who were not intimately familiar with the underlying metrics of the NYSED and Regents tests.
What does a "Level 2" or "Level 3" really signify? What is a 618 ELA score, or a 650? If a child is a 578, what does it mean and what is a parent supposed to do, if anything? How can a child's one-day exam end up with a score of 780? What does a raw score of 28 mean? If a child brings home a 70 on his/her Algebra I Regents exam, isn't that a good thing?
For probably most if not all of the last century, most public school grades have been measured on a scale of 1 - 100, with 65 being the normal "cut score" for passing (i.e., content proficiency, albeit rather minimal at 65). This system has been the height of simplicity, easily understood by virtually one hundred percent of the public. If a son or daughter brought home a test score of 78, every parent know EXACTLY where the child stood on the material tested.
Ask the typical NYC/NYS parents of elementary or middle school children today how their kids are doing as measured by the NYS Math and ELA exams, and many have no honest idea beyond, "He's a 2" or "She's a 3." Not only are these reductionist numbers short of meaning, far too few parents have any idea how they were derived. At the high school level, the 1 -100 scoring scale appears on its surface to have been retained, yet how many parents have no idea that their child's 70 on the June 2o10 Algebra I Regents exam was really a 41% (36 raw score points out of 87 possible)? Up until the late 1990s, that 70 really was a 70%, and every parent of every student I ever taught at that time knew EXACTLY what it meant. Then NCLB came along, and with it endless obfuscation and obscure manipulation.
Present rethinking of the NYS examinations could have provided, and perhaps still could provide, an opportunity to bring some much need simplicity and clarity to these measurements. The necessary action is disarmingly simple:
SCORE EVERY STANDARDIZED EXAM ON A 100-POINT SCALE, WITH 65 AS PASSING WHERE SUCH A CUTOFF IS NEEDED (AS IN HIGH SCHOOL EXAMS).
Even the proficiency levels would no longer be necessary, since parents already know their child's achievement level if he or she socres an 82, honestly measured. If a four-division proficiency scale is still required to satisfy President Obama and Arne Duncan, set those levels once and keep them there: for example, Below 65 is Level 1, 65 - 79 is Level 2, 80 - 89 is Level 3, and 90 - 100 is Level 4. At the high school level, all scale scoring of Regents exams should be eliminated and replaced with direct grading of exams on a simple, 100-point scale.
Yes, I admit that it's simplistic and perhaps even a bit naive, but why should simple and/or naive necessarily be bad? As things stand now, what parent can put any faith in the current measures? What parent doesn't believe that, following the latest round of changes announced by David Steiner(here and here), the same march toward inflated test scores and grandiose claims of progress won't simply restart, just using a different baseline?
Making it more difficult for "test experts" and other educrats to hide behind Wizard-of-Albany (and Wizard-of-Tweed) curtains while playing games with massive statistical databases no more understandable than Wall Street credit default swaps is certainly a worthy goal. Even more worthy is bringing public school parents back into the process by measuring their children's progress (at least as assessed in these instruments) in terms we all understand, relate to, and even respond to in the same, shared way. Giving parents honest, stable, and understandable diagnostic feedback on their children's academic progress would go a long way towards turning a much maligned, politically misused assessment system into a more useful and meaningful process.