Forecasting Failures, N.Y. Delays Raising Exam Threshold

By David J. Hoff — October 15, 2003 4 min read
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New York state last week postponed raising the passing score on its high school exit exams for three years.

The state’s board of regents adjusted the score because high numbers of students were passing at the level currently deemed acceptable, but failed to reach the goal set for the class of 2005. The problem was especially acute in the largest cities, where thousands of students likely would have been denied diplomas, Commissioner of Education Richard P. Mills wrote to board members in a memo recommending the changes.

Over the next three years, Mr. Mills added, New York will undertake a “renewed, rigorous, and relentless statewide effort” to raise student achievement to reach the higher passing score. The class of 2008 will need to score at least 65 on a scale of 100 on tests in English, mathematics, world history, American history, and one science subject. Until this week, a score of 55 was good enough to earn a diploma for the class of 2004 but not for the following years.

“Let me be very clear about this: Fifty-five does not represent an achievement of the standards,” Mr. Mills said at a press conference after the board acted on his recommendation last week. “It’s a temporary alternative. We’re going to move beyond that.”

Educators said the board of regents had made the right move, given the prospect that high numbers of this year’s junior class would be denied diplomas.

“It was apparent to us that there were going to be huge numbers of students failing,” said David L. Ernst, a spokesman for the New York State School Boards Association. “It’s not fair to test them as if they spent [grades] K-12 in a standards-based environment.”

Even with the postponement of the higher standard, a score of 55 represents higher achievement than the minimum-competency tests that preceded the current exams, another educator pointed out.

“This is really a stretch from where we used to be,” said Thomas L. Rogers, the executive director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. “We’ve made a lot of progress. What we’re learning is, you can only move the system so quickly.”

Math, Physics Solutions

Postponing the use of the higher passing score was one of several changes the state board made last week, a series of actions Mr. Mills characterized as a “midcourse adjustment.” Since 1996, the state has phased in passage of its Regents exams as a high school graduation requirement. Before 1996, high-achieving students took the Regents exams to earn a special diploma, and others took competency tests to get a general diploma.

Last week, the board adopted plans to prevent future problems like the ones that led Mr. Mills to invalidate the scores on the “Math A” Regents exam last spring. (“N.Y. State Seniors Flunk Exit Exam, But Get Diplomas,” July 9, 2003.)

Based on the findings of an expert panel, the state will write a whole new math exam, using more rigorous field-testing than before to ensure it reflects the knowledge described in the state’s math standards.

The state will rewrite those standards so they are clearer, are easier to use in the classroom, and give a detailed picture of what’s expected on the math graduation exam. It will then write a grade-by-grade K-12 curriculum to show how to prepare students to pass the math exam.

Board members also decided to add an extra layer of review to drafts of math and all other Regents exams to ensure that the content on the exams reflects what the state standards expect of students.

In physics, the board elected to convene a group of teachers to set new performance benchmarks on the exam and rescore the tests given this year and last to match those new expectations. Educators had complained about high failure rates on those exams, but Mr. Mills never rescinded the scores the way he did for the math test.

In addition to the many changes it made last week, the board of regents extended a policy allowing students with disabilities to earn local diplomas by passing the easier competency tests through the class of 2013. New York had been scheduled to phase out the policy with the class of 2008.

Common Dilemma

New York’s decision is like that of other states that have lowered their passing scores on high school exit exams, said Keith Gayler, the associate director of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington think tank that follows exit exams and other school improvement efforts.

“They’re finding they can set high goals, but when it comes right down to it, they can’t have 20 [percent] to 30 percent of kids not getting diplomas,” Mr. Gayler said. “These delays are a better option than going full steam ahead.”

In his memo to board members, Commissioner Mills said that the state had “seen improvement across the board” in the seven years that the Regents exams have been a graduation requirement.

At least 93 percent of general education students in the class of 2002 passed all their Regents exams.

But, if the passing score had been raised to 65, an additional 20 percent of students in the state’s five largest cities would not have received diplomas last year, Mr. Mills wrote.

Even though the state board chose to return the passing score to its previous level, the commissioner said the state would report the number of students who score between 55 and 65 and find out how schools succeed in getting high proportions of students over the ultimate passing score.

While Mr. Gayler said New York’s decision was prudent, he suggested that it might plant thoughts that the state may eventually back away from the test scores altogether.

Mr. Rogers of the superintendents’ group, however, said state educators were aware that the changes were temporary, and he said they would be working to get ready once the passing rate of 65 is required of the class of 2008.

“If anything,” he said, “it will strengthen their resolve [later] to show they weren’t backing off now.”


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