Higher pass rates could be due to tougher tests, expert says

The number of correct answers needed to pass state exams is falling — but the head of the state’s testing oversight board says that’s because the tests are actually getting more difficult.

Critics charge that the tests have become so easy that students can guess their way through them. But there might be a good reason for the shift, said Howard Everson, chair of the state body that oversees the testing process: As the individual exam questions have gotten harder, students need to answer fewer of them correctly to earn the same score.

“The idea you have to remove from your head is that a test has a certain number of questions and all of those questions have the same weight every year,” Everson said.

Instead, he said, the state has asked CTB/McGraw-Hill, the company that publishes the exams, to make test questions slightly harder every year. The publisher then adjusts the scale that calculates a student’s final score from the number of correct answers according to the difficulty level of that year’s questions.

The modifications ensure that the test is scored fairly from year to year, Everson said, so that a student correctly answering seven relatively easy multiple choice questions one year would not receive the same final score on an exam as a student correctly answering seven harder questions a different year.

But a side effect is that students have to answer fewer questions correctly each year to pass the tests.

In 2006, for example, a seventh-grade student needed to earn 28 out of 50 possible correct answers on a combination of multiple choice and open-ended questions to score a Level 3 on the math exam, indicating that the student met state learning standards. In 2009, a seventh-grader needed only 22 of the 50 correct, a decline of nearly 12 percent.

Similarly, fifth-graders in 2009 needed half the total number of correct answers on their math exam for a Level 3 score, down more than 8 percent from 2006.

If the state wanted to head off this trend, it could modify the scale and raise the “cut scores” that separate proficiency levels, Everson said. (The cut scores are based on a complicated point-to-score conversion process detailed here.) But the scales and cut scores have not been reviewed since 2004, he said.

The trend is especially relevant in New York City, where students in grades 3-8 must now score at least a Level 2 on the exams to be promoted to the next grade.

The ease with which students can hit the Level 2 mark may account for the dramatic reduction of the numbers of failing students in New York City. Only a tiny proportion of city students now score at the lowest level on the state tests.

Some critics dispute Everson’s assertion that test questions are getting harder. They point to a recent study that revealed that some test questions are reused year after year in virtually identical form.

Everson said his committee determined that the tests were technically sound. But if student performance is truly improving, he said, the way the tests are graded should change.

“It’s certainly time for another assessment of the assessments,” he said. “We do want to make adjustments if we’re testing a higher-ability population in 2010 than we were in 2000.”

Everson emphasized that the elements that influence test score results are complex. Without an updated review of whether higher  scores truly reflect greater learning, he said, it is difficult to know how to interpret exam results. Everson has been calling for a review but so far has not persuaded the state to undertake one.

“That’s the question that goes begging at the moment,” he said. “Are the abilities of the children really improving? And if they are, what does that imply for the testing program?”

after douglas

Betsy DeVos avoids questions on discrimination as school safety debates reach Congress

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos prepares to testify at a House Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing in Rayburn Building on the department's FY2019 budget on March 20, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos fielded some hostile questions on school safety and racial discrimination as she defended the Trump administration’s budget proposal in a House committee hearing on Tuesday.

The tone for the hearing was set early by ranking Democrat Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who called aspects DeVos’s prepared remarks “misleading and cynical” before the secretary had spoken. Even the Republican subcommittee chair, Rep. Tom Cole, expressed some skepticism, saying he was “concerned about the administration continuing to request cuts that Congress has rejected.”

During nearly two hours of questioning, DeVos stuck to familiar talking points and largely side-stepped the tougher queries from Democrats, even as many interrupted her.

For instance, when Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from Texas, complained about proposed spending cuts and asked, “Isn’t it your job to ensure that schools aren’t executing harsher punishments for the same behavior because [students] are black or brown?” DeVos responded by saying that students of color would benefit from expanded school choice programs.

Lee responded: “You still haven’t talked about the issue in public schools as it relates to black and brown students and the high disparity rates as it relates to suspensions and expulsions. Is race a factor? Do you believe that or not?” (Recent research in Louisiana found that black students receive longer suspensions than white students involved in the same fights, though the difference was very small.)

Again, DeVos did not reply directly.

“There is no place for discrimination and there is no tolerance for discrimination, and we will continue to uphold that,” she said. “I’m very proud of the record of the Office of Civil Rights in continuing to address issues that arise to that level.”

Lee responded that the administration has proposed cuts to that office; DeVos said the reduction was modest — less than 1 percent — and that “they are able to do more with less.”

The specific policy decision that DeVos faces is the future of a directive issued in 2014 by the Obama administration designed to push school districts to reduce racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions. Conservatives and some teachers have pushed DeVos to rescind this guidance, while civil rights groups have said it is crucial for ensuring black and Hispanic students are not discriminated against.

That was a focus of another hearing in the House on Tuesday precipitated by the shooting last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, falsely claimed in his opening statement that Broward County Public Schools rewrote its discipline policy based on the federal guidance — an idea that has percolated through conservative media for weeks and been promoted by other lawmakers, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Utah Sen. Mike Lee. In fact, the Broward County rules were put into place in 2013, before the Obama administration guidance was issued.

The Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden, a leading critic of Obama administration’s guidance, acknowledged in his own testimony that the Broward policy predated these rules. But he suggested that policies like Broward’s and the Obama administration’s guidance have made schools less safe.

“Faced with pressure to get the numbers down, the easiest path is to simply not address, or to not record, troubling, even violent, behavior,” he said.

Kristen Harper, a director with research group Child Trends and a former Obama administration official, disagreed. “To put it simply, neither the purpose nor the letter of the federal school discipline guidance restrict the authority of school personnel to remove a child who is threatening student safety,” she said.

There is little, if any, specific evidence linking Broward County’s policies to how Stoneman Douglas shooter Nicholas Cruz was dealt with. There’s also limited evidence about whether reducing suspensions makes schools less safe.

Eden pointed to a study in Philadelphia showing that the city’s ban on suspensions coincided with a drop in test scores and attendance in some schools. But those results are difficult to interpret because the prohibition was not fully implemented in many schools. He also cited surveys of teachers expressing concerns about safety in the classroom including in Oklahoma CityFresno, California; and Buffalo, New York.

On the other hand, a recent study found that after Chicago modestly reduced suspensions for the most severe behaviors, student test scores and attendance jumped without any decline in how safe students felt.

DeVos is now set to consider the repeal of those policies on the Trump administration’s school safety committee, which she will chair.

On Tuesday, DeVos said the committee’s first meeting would take place “within the next few weeks.” Its members will be four Cabinet secretaries: DeVos herself, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.

on the run

‘Sex and the City’ star and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon launches bid for N.Y. governor

Cynthia Nixon on Monday announced her long-anticipated run for New York governor.

Actress and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon announced Monday that she’s running for governor of New York, ending months of speculation and launching a campaign that will likely spotlight education.

Nixon, who starred as Miranda in the TV series “Sex and the City,” will face New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in September’s Democratic primary.

Nixon has been active in New York education circles for more than a decade. She served as a  longtime spokeswoman for the Alliance for Quality Education, a union-backed advocacy organization. Though Nixon will step down from that role, according to a campaign spokeswoman, education promises to be a centerpiece of her campaign.

In a campaign kickoff video posted to Twitter, Nixon calls herself “a proud public school graduate, and a prouder public school parent.” Nixon has three children.

“I was given chances I just don’t see for most of New York’s kids today,” she says.

Nixon’s advocacy began when her oldest child started school, which was around the same time the recession wreaked havoc on education budgets. She has slammed Gov. Cuomo for his spending on education during his two terms in office, and she has campaigned for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

In 2008, she stepped into an emotional fight on the Upper West Side over a plan to deal with overcrowding and segregation that would have impacted her daughter’s school. In a video of brief remarks during a public meeting where the plan was discussed, Nixon is shouted down as she claims the proposal would lead to a “de facto segregated” school building.

Nixon faces steep competition in her first run for office. She is up against an incumbent governor who has amassed a $30 million war chest, according to the New York Times. If elected, she would be the first woman and the first openly gay governor in the state.