under scrutiny

State defends test-scoring adjustments as rates creep up

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

After years of test-score inflation, the State Education Department is fighting to retain its credibility after scores increased slightly this year.

Amid growing scrutiny, state officials took the unusual step on Monday of posting a memo to its web site that explains why they lowered the number of correct questions needed to pass some of this year’s state reading and math tests. Officials characterized the adjustments as routine and necessary to maintain a consistent level of difficulty over time.

“We’ve been doing [it] for decades and never talked about it in our press releases,” said Deputy State Education Commissioner Ken Wagner in an interview, explaining why the shifts were not disclosed when test scores were released.

But many are still skeptical, in large part because the state has allowed big fluctuations in test difficulty in the past—and those changes were often politically advantageous.

This year, test developers adjusted the number of points that students needed to earn in order to reach a level 3 or 4, denoting academic proficiency on the English and math tests, on eight of the 12 exams given in 2014. The raw scores were lowered on six tests because they were determined to be slightly more difficult than the tests given in 2013, when the state introduced new tests. Raw scores were raised on four tests because they were found to be too easy, and stayed the same for the remaining two.

Officials said the changes were made to ensure that a student would, in theory, get the same score this year as he or she on previous versions of the exam.

Consistency hasn’t been a hallmark of New York state tests, though. The new tests aligned to the Common Core standards forced scores to plummet last year for a second time since 2010. Before that, a three-year boom under then-Commissioner Richard Mills saw city proficiency rates exceed 80 percent in math and near 70 percent in reading. By 2009, the tests were so easy that students could guess on the multiple choice section and still hit the proficiency bar.

“The inflation seen from 2006 to 2009 damaged the credibility of the testing system quite a bit,” Teachers College Professor Aaron Pallas said.

There are a variety of explanations for the inflation during the Mills period. One reason, Pallas said, was that the tests covered a narrow spectrum of content that allowed schools to more easily prepare students; others have implied it had something more to do with Mills’ personal desire for score increases.

Wagner blamed faulty data from practice tests that the state relied on to design its tests. Students didn’t take the tests seriously, Wagner said, but the results were still used to determine the level of difficulty for the real thing.

“Kids were getting a lot of questions wrong, which made the questions look harder than they really were,” Wagner said of the practice tests.

Now, scores are creeping back up. In 2014, city math scores improved nearly five percentage points, while English scores rose two points, according to the state.

Critics who remember the testing bubble from last decade have not been so ready to believe the increases are real. Class Size Matters’ Leonie Haimson wrote on her blog that recent history “should teach us to be open to the possibility” that the scores are being manipulated.

Wagner dismissed the criticism as unwarranted and coming from people unwilling to fully understand the topic.

“Some people appreciate when something is complicated, and are willing to listen,” Wagner said, “and other people aren’t.”

For his part, Pallas—a critic of many of the state’s testing policies—said he believes the state’s scoring adjustments this time around were “credible” and said the new tests were harder to prepare for than the pre-Common Core versions. But, he said, the state needs to continue its efforts to improve transparency.

“I don’t think they’ve done a very good job of it in the past,” Pallas said.

The state has also come under fire for its tallying of city students who did not take the tests. The city insists that just under 2,000 students “opted out” of taking the tests, while the state’s number is more than 10 times that figure. Representatives for both the city and state said that they would have more complete details on Tuesday.

Correction: A previous version stated the wrong number of tests whose raw scores were raised on four tests, not two. 

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”