Botched Most Answers on New York State Math Test? You Still Pass

The article below, based on a school system in New York City, highlights a major concern that many educators hold nationwide: Standardized testing is often flawed and seemingly arbitrary. In this example, testing criteria shifted by lowering the percentage points needed to pass because some of the questions are harder than the ones on the same test from last year. As the article surmises:

“At a time when the tests are assuming an unprecedented role in classrooms across the state — used for everything from analyzing student deficiencies to determining which educators deserve cash bonuses — the debate underscores a central question: How accurate are the exams in measuring student learning and progress, and what skills should a passing grade reflect?”

Co-director of the Upward Bound programs at the University of Maine, Lori C. Wingo, addressed this issue in last week’s article dated 9/11/09, “Student Ability to Excel Lost.” She writes: “The gap between a high school diploma and college readiness is widening at an alarming rate.” She continues in her essay for the Bangor Daily News, “These matriculating college students have traded critical thinking skills and higher levels of learning for a curriculum that asks only for proficiency and tests for it in multiple choice format.”


Indeed, critical and creative thinking skills are required if a person is to adapt and flourish in the 21st Century. Peter Sacks, in his book, Standardized Minds, concludes that “scoring high on standardized tests is a good predictor of one’s ability to score high on standardized tests.” Research has not been able to correlate achievement on these tests with any future success in school or work. Take this question from New York’s practice test:

The year 1999 was a big one for the Williams sisters. In February, Serena won her first pro singles championship. In March, the sisters met for the first time in a tournament final. Venus won. And at doubles tennis, the Williams girls could not seem to lose that year. The story says that in 1999, the sisters could not seem to lose at doubles tennis. This probably means when they played:

A. two matches in one day
B. against each other
C. with two balls at once
D. as partners

Is this test measuring reading skills or tennis knowledge? A strong reader could probably figure out the correct answer, but a student with knowledge of the rules of tennis has a definite advantage. Teaching to the test also narrows the curriculum, forcing teachers and students to concentrate on memorization of isolated facts, instead of developing fundamental and higher order abilities. As students and families strive toward college, career and life success in the ubiquitous testing environment, we need to ask ourselves:

  • What other methods of assessment are available that can accurately measure a student’s mastery of subject material and life skills?
  • What can we learn from other nations who tend to use performance-based assessments for evaluation of student achievement and future success rather than multiple-choice matrices?
  • How can the U.S. better prepare students for life after high school?


New York Times
by Javier C. Hernandez

For many students, bungling more than half the questions on a test would mean an F and all that comes with it — months of remedial work, irksome teachers and, perhaps, a skimpy allowance. But on New York State’s math exam this year, seventh graders who correctly answered just 44 percent of questions were rewarded with a passing grade.

What gives?

Three years ago, the threshold for passing was 60 percent. In fact, students in every grade this year could slide by with fewer correct answers on the math test than in 2006.

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