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Cheating Students Who "Pass" the Test

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I hated high school English classes because teachers would not let me read what I wanted to read. My friends and I were into science fiction, especially Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Poul Anderson. I also liked John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway and after being introduced to their work I read all of their novels. But the teachers wanted us to read books by Willa Cather, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and William Faulkner, and I just was not ready to move on. However, what I really hated was Herman Melville and Thomas Hardy -- too many characters and too many words; boring. I also read newspapers everyday, especially the sports pages of The New York Times and the New York Post.

Reading selectively I managed to get 85s in my English classes and an 89 on the English Regents in 1967. I have a Ph.D. in history so the test must have somewhat adequately predicted my ability to do college-level work.

But we are now learning that with all the pressure on teachers, administrators, and schools to lift student test scores, standardized exams today, especially the New York State English Regents, actually measure very little.

Many high school teachers, especially in urban and minority communities in New York City and state, have long wondered why scores on the state English regents were higher than in other subject areas. English teachers thought it was just because they were better at what they do, although other content area teachers had their suspicions. Usually, a teacher never actually looks at state exams from other subjects.

The website Great Schools makes possible a quick examination of test scores for each high school in New York State on each state exam and shows the inflated English regents scores. A. Philip Randolph High Campus Magnet High School in Manhattan had a "C" as its overall grade by New York City in 2009-2010. Only 39% of students taking the Mathematics B exam passed in 2010, compared to a 61 percent passing average statewide. In Global History and Geography, 59 percent of the students passed compared to 69 percent statewide. Students did a little better in Living Environments/Biology. Sixty-one percent passed compared to 79 percent statewide. But a whopping 91 percent passed the English Regents. At Edward R. Murrow High School in Brooklyn, rated "A" in 2009-2010, 50% of the students passed Math B, 75% passed Living Environment, 77% passed Global History and Geography, and 90% passed the English Regents. Richmond Hill High School in Queens received a D rating in 2010-2011 and is now threatened with being closed. In 2009-2010, 27% of the students passed Math B, 65% passed Living Environment, 54% passed Global History and Geography, and an amazing 82% passed the English Regents.

These test scores matter because New York State uses student performance on standardized tests to evaluate schools and determine each school's accountability status. When schools do not reach test benchmarks but are subject to review, reorganization, and closing. In addition, in response to federal Race to the Top grant requirements there is now debate statewide over using student test scores as supposedly objective measures to rate teachers, determine tenure, assign bonuses, and fire teachers whose students perform poorly.

The tests also matter because students who score seventy-five or better on the New York State English Regents are exempt from remedial reading and writing classes in the City University of New York. But that is only part of the story. Three-quarters of the 17,500 freshmen at the community colleges this year have needed remedial instruction in reading, writing or math, and nearly a quarter of the freshmen have required such instruction in all three subjects.

Thanks to a recent article by Michael Winerip in the New York Times we now know why students score much better on the English Regents. The exam is much easier than the others. In fact it is so easy that it does not even measure basic student literacy. It also calls into question the reliability of standardized tests to measure anything about schools, let alone teacher performance, and the whole federal Race to the Top program.

Currently, the English regents, which takes three hours to complete, includes twenty-five multiple choice questions, an essay, and two short response questions that require a paragraph-long answer. Winerip examined the rubric posted online by New York State for evaluating student essays. He found acceptable answers were full of spelling and grammatical errors, conceptual misunderstanding, and often simply restated the question.

Fortunately for Winerip's sanity, he did not analyze the short-answer part of the test, probably because it has not yet been posted on the state website. However, the August 2011 exam is available and it suggests the problem is even greater than Winerip recognized. For part 1, a teacher read a passage to students about an individual concerned with recycling paper. Students then must answer eight multiple-choice questions about the passage. A typical question is "The speaker uses less paper in her kitchen by purchasing... " The choices are silverware, plastic bags, sponges, and pot holders. For the rest of the test, students read three one-page passages and a poem and answer questions about the content. In August, the first passage was about camping and comfort, the second offered brief biographies of Peter Roget and George and Charles Merriam, and the third was an excerpt from a novel. None of the passages were on technical material. None of the passages were on the difficulty level of the sports coverage in the New York Times. None of the passages in any way demonstrated the ability to do college-level work. Neither the reading passages nor the questions utilize high school, let alone college, level vocabulary. There were no questions about vocabulary, grammar, or books. Shakespeare remains in the high school English curriculum but not on the Regents. In more affluent suburban districts, middle school students should easily pass this test.

Based on Michael Winerip's analysis of the scoring rubric on the most recent New York State English Regents, and my examination of the August 2011 reading passages and multiple-choice questions, not only are New York State students who pass this test ill-prepared to do college level work, but those who are going on to college are being exempted from remedial programs they desperately need. Lying to students about the level of their work -- that is the real crime with the inflation of English regents grades.