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Are Math Teachers Really Better Than Social Studies Teachers? Everything Depends on the "Cut" Score

07/07/2014 02:33 pm ET | Updated Sep 06, 2014

New York State social studies teachers are worried. Between 20 and 40% of their annual "Danielson" assessment will be based on student performance on standardized tests. Untenured teachers are particularly concerned because districts are making it more and more difficult to secure tenure and are basing tenure decisions on Danielson and other assessment rubrics.

Normally you would expect better teachers to have higher student test scores. But that means applying logical to an illogical system; a system where tests have questionable validity and the reported test scores are manipulated by state officials to secure political advantage, assuage the public, and secure federal Race to the Top dollars.

Math teachers, especially 9th grade Algebra teachers, have higher reported student scores on standardized state exams than do social studies teachers, especially global studies teachers, but does that mean they are better teachers? Let's see.

On the August 2011 integrated Algebra "Regents," test results were weighted so that a student only needed to get 34% or the questions correct, or 30 of 87, to get 65%, or a passing score. The conversion chart on the state website explains how low raw scores were translated into acceptable test grades which meant both the student and the student's teacher passed. It did not mean the student knows Algebra, it just meant they passed.

On the August 2011, Global History "Regents," student would have to get 36 out of 50 multiple-choice questions correct, about 70%, plus about half credit on the short answer and essay questions to get the same 65% passing grade. A student who did better on the essay could do worse on the short answer and multiple-choice questions. For those of you who have difficulty in the way New York State does math, in Algebra, one-third right is passing, but in social studies you basically have to get a 65 to get a 65.

Carol Burris and John Murphy, principal and assistant principal at South Side High School in Rockville Centre, New York did a careful analysis of the June 2014 New York State Common Core aligned high school Algebra and English tests. On the Algebra tests, they found unnecessarily complicated problems with extraneous verbiage and confusing directions that made it more a test of vocabulary and knowledge of jargon than the ability to understand and solve math problems.

On the English Language Arts exam reading passages were nearly tripled in length, testing not student understanding but their test durability. Inside of providing insight into what students know or don't know, it was as if the test was intentionally designed to fail English Language learners and students with any type of learning or patience issues.

The state, feeling a lot of pressure from parents and fearful of bad publicity if too many students did poorly on its new Common Core aligned tests, decided to set "cut" or passing scores for these tests so that roughly the same percentage of students passed as on the old "regents" exams, 74% for Algebra and 77% for English. To achieve this, they set the "cut" score for the 84-question Algebra test at 30 questions correct. The English test scoring was even more bizarre. In a theory, a student who wrote strong essays could pass the Common Core aligned English test by getting only five points on the reading portion of the exam or about 20% correct.

Global History, without a weighted final score, generally has the lowest passing rate of any New York State high school assessment. In 2011 it was only 56%. Evidently social studies teachers need to learn the new math, 30=65, and demand that the "cut" score on the global history regents be set so that 75% of the students automatically pass.

A New York State Board of Regents "PowerPoint" on its engageNY website tries to explain the logic of its testing program to the public. According to Slide 2, "The Bottom Line," "The Board will consider cut scores required for passing Common Core Regents Exams over this transition period. For our students and their teachers, these cut scores are just one component of a rigorous and relevant course of study for the remaining eight years of the phase-in."

The other 57 slides defend Common Core and high-stakes testing as preparing students for college and career readiness, but they NEVER actually explain how Common Core or the new Algebra and English tests achieve these goals.

The reality is that New York State's latest test results tell us very little about student and teacher performance and have nothing to do with rigor. We also do not know what they say about college and career readiness.

The announced test passing rates basically confirm two old sayings about reporting data.

"Garbage in means garbage out" and "Figures lie when liars figure."