Wisdom Prevails, for Once, as Board Members Set State Math Test Cut Scores

This year Ohio threw out the PARCC Common Core test and adopted another test designed and administered by the American Institutes of Research (AIR).  But changing tests did not solve everybody’s problems. Here’s what happened, according to Patrick O’Donnell, the education reporter for the Plain Dealer:

“Preliminary test scores on Ohio’s new Geometry and Integrated Math II exams… show that the tests were such a mismatch with student ability that fewer than one out of every four students who took them met state benchmarks.  The state had predicted that 59 percent of high schoolers would score as ‘Proficient’ or above on the Geometry exam, but only 24 percent did.  Similarly, 56 percent were projected to score as ‘Proficient’ or above on the Integrated Math II exam and only 21 percent did.”

Ohio uses the tests as one of the factors that qualify a student for high school graduation: “Ohio has a few paths students can take to qualify for graduation, but the main pathway calls for them to earn ‘points’ toward graduation based on their ratings on state tests—one point if Limited, two for Basic, three for Proficient, four for Accelerated and five for Advanced.  High school students need 18 points to graduate.  With seven math, English and social studies tests required….”

Cut scores on standardized tests are, of course, a political calculation. There is nothing scientific about the measurement of proficiency. Tests can be made really hard or really easy.  And politicians, not psychometricians, set cut scores that determine who passes and who fails.  Too often the people setting the scores in the test-and-punish ethos that has dominated our society are anxious to “protect the quality of the diploma” and guarantee “college-and-career-ready.” There hasn’t been so much worry about the quality of the schooling experience itself.

In a follow-up report, Patrick O’Donnell quotes some Ohio politicians as they describe why they support setting tough cut scores.  Andrew Brenner, chair of the House Education Committee (and the man who calls public education “socialism”), says tough cut scores motivate students to work harder: “I think you’ll see a potential major improvement in the scores.” State school board member Todd Jones condemns adjusting the cut scores because it’s too permissive and he believes school ought to be tough:   “It’s the trophies-for-all movement… Students… can take classes again, get tutoring and take the tests again to earn better scores. They’re going to re-take it and re-take it and get remediation.”

Showing better sense than usual, “Calling the lower results ‘outliers’ that need attention, the Ohio Department of Education… (asked) the state school board to adjust the cut scores so that 52 percent of students would be rated Proficient or above on the Geometry test and 35 percent Proficient or above on Integrated Math II.”

At this week’s hearing, A.J. Wagner, a member of the state board of education and a retired Dayton judge, spoke on behalf of the students whose scores would prevent their eventual high school graduation: “Wagner told the board that about 40 percent of high school students are not scoring well enough on required tests to graduate from high school. ‘All I hear is more rigor, more rigor, and they’ll try harder. But what if they don’t? I’m worried about those kids. I don’t know where they go.'”

Wagner acknowledges the reality described by Russell Rumberger in a publication of the American Psychological Association for students who fail to earn a high school diploma: “Dropouts face extremely bleak economic and social prospects. Compared to high school graduates, they are less likely find a job and earn a living wage, and more likely to be poor and to suffer from a variety of adverse health outcomes. Moreover, they are more likely to rely on public assistance, engage in crime and generate other social costs borne by taxpayers.”

And there is another reality that nobody talks about much when they consider the meaning of the standardized testing.  Not all schools offer the same math and science classes.  The U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights published data earlier this month about course offerings in the schools that serve primarily black and Latino students: “Black and Latino students are 38% of students in schools that offer Algebra II and 37% of students enrolled in Algebra II; they are 36% of students in schools that offer calculus and 21% of students enrolled in calculus….”  What the Department’s data doesn’t cover are the disparities in course offerings across wealthy suburbs, urban areas, and small and very tiny towns.  Not all students in public schools have access to the same opportunities to learn. Students on track to enroll in the most advanced high school math courses are likely to score better on standardized tests—even tests of basic geometry—than students in high schools that provide only minimal courses.

Mercifully, after considerable conversation, on Tuesday, the Ohio State Board of Education corrected the cut scores in the state math exams in which scores this spring had come in alarmingly lower than what had been predicted:  “In the end, the board voted 11 to 5 to adjust the scores that students need for the new high school geometry and Integrated Math II end-of-course exams…  But the board made no changes to expectations on other state tests, despite a passionate plea from board member A.J. Wagner of Dayton to lower expectations across the board to insure that students can graduate.”