And how can the Mayor and his NYC DoE keep getting away with their fair share of blame in this scheme, including the ultimate "social promotion" plan?
It may have been primarily Mills’ fault but certainly others are partly responsible for years of fraudulent claims and data manipulation: “Mills and other officials argued that the questions had become more difficult, thus justifying the lower cutoff scores. Smith found the items getting easier each year.”
Who were those other officials? And why haven’t they been held accountable? David Abrams is still there as head of testing, and CTB-McGraw are still the contractors. Certainly they are equally responsible for this mess.
As for why did they allow the fellow who heads the NYSED assessment program, Dave Abrams, to remain in his position ... perhaps Abrams would go public with the fact that the Regents indeed knew all about the testing scams.
New York's school testing conBy SUSAN EDELMAN
Last Updated: 1:36 PM, February 20, 2011
Posted: 10:22 PM, February 19, 2011
In a stunningly short time, from 2006 to 2009, New York schools celebrated what was presented as a tremendous turnaround. The number of city students passing statewide math tests in the third through eighth grades surged from 58% to 82%. At the same time, the Big Apple graduation rate rose from 49% to an all-time high of 63% last year.
The figures were miraculous.
They were also, for the most part, a lie.
While the scores have risen, real achievement has lagged. Behind the curtain, an erosion of standards has led to a generation of New Yorkers who have been handed high school diplomas but can’t handle the rigors of college or careers.
A new state report finds just 23% of city grads leave high school ready to succeed in college or the work world. About 75% who enrolled at CUNY community colleges flunked the entrance exam, and must take one or more remedial classes in math, reading and writing.
CLICK HERE TO SEE HOW TEST SCORES HAVE CHANGED OVER RECENT YEARS
How did the state testing system, meant to closely gauge how well students and their schools were doing, create such a grand illusion?
Insiders and critics interviewed by The Post largely blame Richard Mills, the state’s education commissioner for 14 years until he resigned in 2009.
The standardized tests approved by Mills and his team measured a limited number of skills and repeated similar questions year after year. At the same time, Mills instructed the company hired to administer the tests, CTB/McGraw-Hill, to gradually lower “cut scores,” the minimal points kids needed to pass or demonstrate proficiency.
In 2006, for example, sixth-graders taking the English language arts test had to answer 16 of 39 questions correctly, or 41%, to achieve Level 2, which is below proficient but enough to advance to the next grade. But by 2009, the sixth-graders needed just 7 of 39 points — a paltry 18%.
“We were clearly misrepresenting student achievement,” said Betty Rosa, a former Bronx superintendent on the state Board of Regents, which oversees education statewide. “We were not giving the public the truth.”
When Mills was appointed commissioner in 1995 by the Board of Regents, New York had two types of high school diplomas — one more challenging and prestigious.
Students could strive for a “Regents diploma,” which required more demanding courses and passing eight Regents high school exams, a path that typically led to a four-year college. Or they could simply pass the “State competency tests,” and settle for a “local diploma” from their school district.
A year on the job, Mills prodded the board to vote for tougher rules requiring all public high-school students to pass Regents exams to graduate. To ease fears of higher failure and dropout rates, the rules were phased in slowly starting in 2000, to give schools time to meet the higher expectations. The passing score was set first at 55 for a “local diploma,” and 65 for a “Regents diploma.”
Next year, all graduating seniors who entered the ninth grade in 2008, except some special-education kids, will be the first class that must earn a 65 or higher on five required Regents exams. Everyone who graduates will get a Regents diploma.
The pressure increased at lower grades as well. The federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, passed by President George W. Bush, mandated states to measure student achievement annually in every grade from three through eight starting in 2006.
The state has awarded $48.2 million in contracts to CTB/McGraw-Hill to devise the math and reading test. The city Department of Education gave the same California-based company an $80 million contract to develop practice tests.
The company’s psychometricians, or measurement scientists, determined the difficulty of questions and converted raw test scores to a scale. A panel of experts appointed by Mills recommended cutoff points for students to reach each of four levels: 1. Not meeting standards 2. Partially meeting standards, 3. Proficient and 4. Advanced.
But Mills set the bar — and how high or low would control the results.
“Ultimately, it’s the commissioner’s decision,” said state Education Department spokesman Tom Dunn.
While leading the public to believe students were making great strides, Mills’ team was quietly reducing the number and percentage of points needed to pass or demonstrate proficiency each year.
Third-graders taking the math exam in 2006, for instance, had to score 17 out of 38 points, or 45%, to make a passing Level 2. In 2009, they needed just 11 points out of 39, or 28%. In 2006, they needed to correctly answer 64.4% of questions to score a proficient Level 3. By 2009, that had dropped to 53.8%.
Teachers found themselves “teaching to the test” by using old exams as practice, because many questions were strikingly similar to those asked the year before.
“The kids knew what to expect, and they naturally did better,” a third-grade teacher from Brooklyn said of the 2009 tests. “I had kids that truly had no business passing, despite my best efforts. I was shocked when they passed. It was really a disservice.”
Skepticism mounted. Fred Smith, a former testing analyst for city schools, independently studied the “p-value,” or difficulty level of the test questions. Mills and other officials argued that the questions had become more difficult, thus justifying the lower cutoff scores. Smith found the items getting easier each year.
“It confirmed what principals and teachers believed — that the state had dumbed down the tests,” he said.
Then came even more spectacular, and suspicious, 2009 results. “Why are we celebrating these scores as a miracle, when there is no miracle?” Rosa said she asked.
Another insider said Big Apple officials were urged not to “exaggerate” the results. But Mayor Bloomberg hailed the increase in 2009 as an “enormous victory.” At the time, he had a lot riding on the scores — he was seeking a third term and pushing for legislation to extend mayoral control of the schools.
City officials “got very angry,” the insider said, when Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch publicly downplayed the results, citing “troubling gaps” between the stellar state scores and lackluster outcomes on national exams.
Mills has maintained the scoring was backed by his panel of experts. But Rosa and other members of the Board of Regents say he kept them in the dark.
“I basically asked, ‘Who sets the cut scores? How is this determined?’ ” said Rosa, who joined the board in 2008. “There was no real explanation. I never got a straight answer.”
Mills and his testing chief, David Abrams, had rebuffed requests in 2008 to investigate the inflation. Faced with a lack of confidence, Mills was “encouraged” to leave in June 2009, insiders said. He declined to comment last week, saying, “I have nothing to add.”
Many city students soon discovered their Big Apple diploma was little more than a piece of paper.
Jasmine Gary, 18, a graduate of Port Richmond HS on Staten Island, was surprised when she scored a 70 on the Regents math exam.
“I don’t know how I passed, because I failed a lot of math classes,” she said.
She applied to CUNY but bombed on the entrance exam. Now she’s required to take a no-credit, $75 remedial class at Borough of Manhattan Community College, but is catching up. “I learn more here,” she said.
Rossie and Angely Torres, 18-year-old twins from The Bronx, earned 76 and 75 respectively on the math Regents at Philip Randolph HS in Harlem. They, too, take remedial classes at BMCC.
“In high school it was just people talking and the teacher would just give us an assignment. It was just to graduate. But here, people work hard and the teacher is more serious,” Rossie said.
Former Chancellor Joel Klein, who left office several months ago to join News Corp, which owns The Post, declined to be interviewed. But he defended his eight-year record via e-mail sent by a city DOE spokesman.
“We’ve long called for higher standards and . . . we still made real gains,” Klein said.
For instance, city fourth-graders have boosted their scores on national reading tests since 2003, though eighth-grade scores have remained flat.
And NYC has outpaced the state’s other big cities, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Yonkers, the DOE says. In 2002, New York City’s fourth-grade math results were 27% lower than the statewide average, while the other four cities showed a 31% gap. In 2008, New York City was just 8% behind the rest of the state, while the “big four” were 25% behind.
But the more spectacular results have vanished.
The Board of Regents commissioned a study, led by Harvard professor Daniel Koretz, which concluded in 2009 that the statewide grades three-eight tests had become too easy. Mills’ successor, David Steiner, recruited for his experience in teacher development as dean of Hunter College of Education, was charged with making the 2010 tests more comprehensive and less predictable. He also hoisted the cutoff points, requiring students to do more to pass.
Scores plunged. Just 54% of all city students in grades three-eight showed proficiency in math tests last year, compared with 82% in 2009. Reading proficiency citywide fell from 69% to a dismal 42%.
Even so, the tougher tests continued the practice of giving “partial credit” for wrong answers — or no answer at all — if they kids showed some understanding of the concept or did one step right.
On the fourth-grade test, for instance, a kid who answered that a 2-foot-long skateboard is 48 inches got half-credit for adding 24 and 24 instead of the correct 12 plus 12. “They were giving credit for blatantly wrong things,” said a teacher hired to score the tests.
A state report released this month delivered a new blow. It found that most kids who earn less than 75 on the state Regents English test or 80 on the math exam — 65 is passing for both — must take remedial classes before starting college.
That 65 score is misleading as well. It’s based on an adjustable scale — and the state has whittled down the points needed to pass. Back in 2003, students had to get 61.2% of math questions right for a 65 score, the minimum required for a Regents diploma, and 50.5% of questions right for a 55 score, enough for a “local diploma.” Today, students need just 30 points out of a maximum 87 — or 34.5% — to get a 65 score.
“When Johnny or Jenny comes home with a 65 or 70, their parents might think they’ve mastered about two-thirds of the material. In fact, it’s slightly more than a third,” said Steve Koss, a retired city math teacher who has railed against the bloated test scores. “Sadly, most parents don’t understand how the scoring works. If they knew the truth, many would be outraged at what amounts to a fraud perpetrated against them by state and local education officials.”
This month, the state launched a shorter English Regents exam, cutting it from two days to one, six hours to three, and four essays to one. Instead of three other essays, kids have to write two “well-developed paragraphs.”
Shael Polakow-Suransky, the city’s chief academic officer under Chancellor Cathie Black, thinks the slimmed-down version is a step backwards.
“If the goal is to get students college-ready, we need them to do a lot more writing, not less writing,” he said.
The state, meanwhile, said it is now studying ways to revamp the Regents and toughen standards again. Tisch called awarding diplomas with lax standards “social promotion at its worst.”
“You shouldn’t be a graduate in this state if high school hasn’t prepared you for higher education or a career,” she said. “If you’re not prepared, you’re locked into a life with no choices.”
Susan Edelman covers education for The Post. Kathianne Boniello contributed to this report.