New Common Core high school tests set a low bar for passing in New York

Jun 4, 2014 by

By Jill Barshay

High school students in New York State begin sitting for their annual Regents exams on June 3 and the results for two of the exams — algebra and English – should have provided a first look at how well students grasp the new Common Core standards. But now that seems unlikely.

The new standards and the tests that accompany them have been touted as much more rigorous and state education officials, mindful of the political repercussions of low scores, have changed how a passing score will be calculated. When the exams are graded later this month (June), students could pass algebra, for example, by answering less than a third of the questions correctly. The bar to pass the English exam is expected to be low, too.

New York has been in the forefront of rolling out the new assessments. Most states that are planning to upgrade their exams won’t begin introducing them until next year and many are delaying even longer. A year ago, New York was the first state to test its third through eighth graders on the Common Core standards. Scores plummeted and parents protested. The stakes are much higher for high school students, who have to pass half a dozen Regents exams to graduate.

“What they don’t want to do is create a massive drop-out rate,” said Maria Voles Ferguson, executive director of the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University, an independent organization that seeks to improve public schools around the nation. “To expect 85 percent of the students to be proficient on a brand new exam that covers brand new material isn’t reasonable. You have to get teachers trained. Students need to adjust. These standards are new and it’s going to take time.”

More than 20 states, from California to Massachusetts, have both adopted the Common Core and have some form of a high school exit exam like New York. They all must grapple with the issue of how soon to require students to master the new material.

Some education experts worry that waiting too long to establish high standards with a high passing score could undermine the new standards. “That ends up signaling to teachers that you don’t actually need to know the content,” said Kathleen Porter-Magee, a Common Core proponent at the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

Common Core

This story is part of our ongoing coverage of the Common Core. Here are just a few of our stories:

Advocates of Common Core hope that new tests might correct the hodgepodge of state assessments that were developed after the passage of No Child Left Behind law in 2001. Some states’ exams were easier than others so that students who were deemed proficient in one state would have been labeled not proficient in another. Other states administered challenging exams, but boosted the number of “proficient” students by lowering the passing score.

In New York, the state Board of Regents made a series of moves this year to tinker with the bar for passing the high school exams. Originally, high school students were supposed to have answered enough questions correctly to prove that they’re ready for introductory college courses. Then in February, the Regents postponed that lofty goal until the class of 2022, currently in fourth grade, takes the tests. Older students need only to hit a lower “proficient” mark to pass.

And even that goal is effectively being delayed for at least a year. Unlike previous years, the Board of Regents will let the results determine the passing score this year. After students take the test, graders will make sure that the percentage of students passing doesn’t differ from previous years. That means 70 to 75 percent of test takers will be deemed proficient in algebra and will be given a scaled score of at least a 65 out of 100 regardless of how many questions they get right. And about 80 percent of test takers will be deemed proficient in English.

In the past, New York educators typically decided that students needed to get about a third of the algebra questions right to demonstrate proficiency in the subject. This year’s exam is expected to be harder with fewer multiple-choice and more complex questions that require students to think through many steps on their own and justify their answers. Since teachers don’t have many sample questions or test prep materials, it’s quite likely that students will do even worse. But until the results are in, no one knows the number of questions required to hit the 65 mark.

Just in case that proficiency bar isn’t low enough for some, New York State’s high school students will get an additional break this year. The Board of Regents will allow them to take the old, pre-Common Core algebra exam at the end of June. The higher of the two scores will be used for graduation.

Despite the easy bar for passing, the Board of Regents thinks it’s found a way to signal its long-term goals. It will still be assembling a panel of educators this month to take the new Common Core tests and come to a consensus on two higher levels of passing scores. One score, to be called a “Level 4”, will indicate that a student is actually meeting the Common Core standards and is ready for college. Another, “Level 5,” will indicate a score that demonstrates a high level of mastery that exceeds the new standards. Neither of these cut scores will count, but they will let teachers know how much they are expected to raise student performance in the next eight years.

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New Common Core high school tests set a low bar for passing in New York | Hechinger Report.

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