Students’ Regents Test Scores Bulge at 65

Barbara Martinez and Tom Mcginty, Wall Street Journal, February 2, 2011

A Wall Street Journal analysis of high-school Regents test scores shows that a disproportionate percentage of New York City students barely got the passing score they needed to receive a diploma in the past two years, while very few received scores just below passing.

For the 2009 English Regents exams, for instance, students were more than five times as likely to get a 65–the minimum passing grade–than they were to score one point below. In the U.S. History and Government Regents, students were 14 times more likely to get a 65 than one point lower.

“There’s no question that there’s something fishy going on,” said Jonah Rockoff, a professor at Columbia University’s business school who frequently analyzes schools-related data sets.

In New York state, high-school teachers score their own students’ tests–which differs from tests in most other states, as well as New York’s own third- through eighth-grade tests. Mr. Rockoff, who reviewed the Regents data, said, “It looks like teachers are pushing kids over the edge. They are very reluctant to fail a kid who needs just one or two points to pass.”

Officials from the New York City Department of Education say there is nothing untoward happening. They note that the state actually requires teachers to regrade certain Regents tests where the student barely fails in order to check for grading errors. “All of our teachers are trained on the State’s scoring policy before grading the Regents exams, and we’re confident the vast majority are adhering to those State guidelines,” said Matt Mittenthal, a spokesman for the city’s DOE.

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Some skeptics aren’t convinced. Mr. Rockoff points to the eighth-grade math scores in New York City for 2009, which aren’t graded by the students’ own teachers. There is no similar clustering at the break point for passing the test. He estimates that 3% to 4% of the students who passed the Regents test last year should have failed, based on the DOE data. He said teachers have effectively lowered the passing score on Regents tests to 62 or 63.

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Teachers refer to the practice of lifting test scores as “scrubbing.” After teachers grade tests–many times their own students or those of their colleagues–they set aside tests in which the students just missed passing. Teachers say that is generally from 60 to 64, but can go as low as 57. The teachers then ask the original scorer to take another look at the test to see if an argument could be made for giving the student an extra point or more.

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Some teachers said the pressure to receive a good grade from the city’s Department of Education, which doles out A’s through F’s based on the number of students passing Regents tests, has driven them to be more generous on the scoring. The DOE has been trying to close schools that get lower grades.

But the concentration around 65s can be seen in other major New York cities, like Albany, Syracuse and Buffalo, where such school-accountability systems don’t exist. Looking at past New York City data, Mr. Rockoff said the patterns around the score of 65 were “just as strong in 2000, so it’s hard to argue that accountability under Bloomberg and Klein pushed teachers to pass more kids.”

Michelle Costa, a high-school math teacher in New York City, said she often hears from friends who teach at other schools who scrub tests, though she doesn’t do it. {snip}

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The state department of education guidelines for teachers scoring Regents tests say that student papers receiving 60 to 64 in only math or science “must be scored a second time to ensure the accuracy of the score.” But the Wall Street Journal analysis shows that test scores appear to be skewed in all of the main subject areas including English and history.

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