Vermont Warns Parents about Arbitrary Nature of Cut Scores—Not to Worry So Much

What does it mean about our society that we are so obsessed with standardized tests?  There is lots of evidence that we’ve become obsessed.  We worry about international rankings. We have allowed our federal government and states to put in place a system of punishments for teachers and schools based on scores on mandated standardized tests. We shop for real estate based on test scores.

Maybe part of our obsession is that testing fits so perfectly with our love of competition.  The tests are like high school football scores; we like to name a champion. We also like our children to be winners, and if test scores on the SAT or ACT are not high enough, maybe our children won’t get into the right college.  But there is something else going on.  These days comparison of test scores is being manipulated by politicians for political purposes.  Most of us don’t really understand what is happening and that makes us fearful.  Maybe tests mean more than we know. Maybe the tests mean something is wrong with our school or our community or our children. Maybe tests show our nation to be a failure.

Over the past week, in the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss has published columns that demystify the scores on the Common Core tests, the test scores from last spring that are only now coming back to some states and being released to parents.  Late last week, the Vermont State Board of Education and Vermont’s secretary of education Rebecca Holcombe sent a letter to parents to reassure them that the state’s Common Core tests should not be taken too seriously. (Scroll down to the end of Strauss’s column to read the letter itself.) Vermont is part of the the Smarter Balanced consortium, a group of states that have agreed to use one of the two major providers’ Common Core tests.

We can assume, from what the Vermont State Board of Education’s letter says that members of the board and Secretary Holcomb are concerned about a scoring scale that is going to make too many of Vermont’s children look like failures.  Here is part of what the State Board’s letter  says to parents:  “We call your attention to the box labeled ‘scale score and overall performance.’ These levels give too simplistic and too negative a message to students and parents.  The tests are at a very high level.  In fact, no nation has ever achieved at such a level.  Do not let the results wrongly discourage your child from pursuing his or her talents, ambitions, hopes or dreams.  These tests are based on a narrow definition of ‘college and career ready.’  In truth, there are many different careers and colleges and there are just as many different definitions of essential skills. In fact, many (if not most) successful adults fail to score well on standardized tests.  If your child’s scores show that they are not yet proficient, this does not mean that they are not doing well or will not do well in the future.”

The issue, of course, is the setting of cut scores on the test.  What score should be marked passing? What score means “proficient”?  What score determines failure?

Just last week, for the purpose of addressing just such questions about scoring scales on standardized tests, Strauss republished a post by Peter Greene, a Pennsylvania school teacher and author of the blog Curmudgucation.  Greene used last week’s transition off Daylight Savings Time to reflect on the labels we use to describe and attach meaning to our reality. Labels, including Daylight Savings Time as well as cut scores on standardized tests, are mere symbols we attach to particular phenomena to make them mean something.

The day after Daylight Savings Time ended, Greene wrote: “Here’s the thing—it will get precisely as dark as it got yesterday… The distribution of light and dark through the day, the distribution of the sun’s high points and low points—it will be pretty much the same today as it was yesterday… What changed is not the distribution of light and dark, but the labels that we put on it…  This is a fine way to explain cut scores. The distribution of student scores, the lights and darks, the highs and lows—that stays pretty much the same. What changes is how people choose to label them. We can take the highest point of the curve and we can call it ‘on level’ or ‘above expectations’ or ‘below expectations.’ And the labels we use are our reality.”  The numbers of correct and incorrect answers comprise the raw data, “But what we label it… is just a label, even an arbitrary label, that we have slapped on the raw data to give it meaning.  And we can give it any meaning we want.”

Like officials in Vermont, Ohio’s education leaders were displeased with Ohio’s scores on the Common Core test—in Ohio’s case, the test of the PARCC consortium.  Less willing to write a letter that might undermine support for our obsession with standardized testing, Ohio’s legislature simply dismissed the PARCC test and plans next year to go with one from the American Institutes of Research.  And at the same time, Ohio’s state board of education bumped up the cut scores.  Some people, who believe tests really mean something objective, have complained that Ohio has just become soft like Lake Woebegon, where all the children are above average.

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), our federal testing law, was intended to make schools and teachers work harder—to improve students’ academic achievement—through the manipulation of test scores.  Test scores were required by NCLB to rise every year until all children reached a level deemed “proficient.”  Because in the real world not all children can score “proficient,” a mass of schools began to be labeled “failing,” and the U.S. Department of Education had to begin to offer waivers from this provision of the law.  Now the Common Core tests are being scored the same way. The cut score for “passing” is being set so high that in many places two-thirds of students are turning out to be failures, and, based on students’ scores, their teachers’ ratings  are collapsing.

We need to ask whether threatening children and their teachers with artificially imposed failing labels is the best way to motivate everyone to try harder. There is a growing consensus that this strategy is not improving our schools.

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