Michael Winerip in Monday’s New York Times:
Despite Focus on Data, Standards for Diploma May Still Lack Rigor
The next time people try to tell you how much the data-driven education reform programs of President George W. Bush (No Child Left Behind) and President Obama (Race to the Top) have raised academic standards in America, suggest that they take a look at the Jan. 24, 2012, New York State English Regents exam.
… The three-hour English test includes 25 multiple choice questions [testing reading comprehension]; one essay; and two short responses that are each supposed to be a paragraph long. A short response is scored 0 to 2 points. A student who gets 1’s on both responses has a pretty good shot at scoring 65 and passing the exam. [Officials are considering raising the passing English score to 75.]
… Until recently there were two main graduation options in New York. Students could earn a Regents-endorsed diploma by passing several state exams, or they could earn a local diploma. But the two-tier system has been phased out. No longer will there be a local diploma option.
New York’s last three education commissioners, all leaders in the reform movement, have been suspicious of assessment instruments that rely too heavily on people who work in schools.
But what to do instead?
State officials have instead chosen to use one English test to assess every high school student in the state, which has caused another fairly gigantic problem: How do you create a single graduation exam for 200,000 seniors when some are heading to the Ivy League and others to pump gas?
We’ll have to take “pump gas” figuratively. There aren’t many jobs for people pumping gas these days.
If the standard is set too high, so many will fail — including children with special education needs and students for whom English is a second language — that there will be a public outcry.
But if the standard is set too low, the result is a diploma that has little meaning.
So far, officials have opted to dumb down the state tests.
Along the way, Winerip provides a series of dismaying extracts from student answers — for instance, these two sentences from an essay that would be scored as 3 out of a possible 6 and could serve as part of a passing exam (the scoring system is complex):
Even though their is no physical conflict withen each other. Their are jealousy problems between each other that each one wish could have.
As things stand, it doesn’t look like the exams are succeeding in improving students’ abilities to read and write. On the other hand, it’s not at all clear how to reach that goal. Meanwhile, everybody thrashes around.