Brenner: Fuzzy scoring on Regents doesn't help students

Let's raise our expectations for what our students Let's raise our expectations for what our students can learn, and hold them and their teachers accountable. But let's do it through meaningful assessments that don't need to be curved, Photo Credit: iStock

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High school students across the state have just finished taking Regents exams, a time-honored tradition in New York that I remember well from my high school days on Long Island in the 1970s. But there's one notable exception.

When I sat for the Regents and missed a multiple choice question, I knew exactly how much that question was worth. If there were 50 questions, they were each worth two points. If I missed three, I lost six points and my score was 94. Scoring was transparent.

Those who have created the 2013 tests have lost sight of that concept.

On this year's integrated algebra Regents exam, receiving 34 percent of the total points yields a score of 65. That's right: A 34 is really a 65.

The exam has 39 questions that total 87 points. If you answer all of them correctly you get a score of 100. If you score 86 out of 87 points -- 98.85 percent -- you receive a 98. (When I was in high school, we would have rounded up.) Consequently, you cannot achieve a score of 99 on this algebra exam. You also can't get a score of 96 -- another function of "rounding down."

Multiple results on the algebra Regents yield the same final score. As an example, students who receive 58, 59, 60, 61 or 62 percent of the total points on this exam all end up with an 80.

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This odd math isn't unique to the math exam. A student who receives 47 percent of the total points on the Living Environment Regents will achieve a 65, a passing score. To achieve a mastery score -- defined by the State Education Department as an 85 -- a student need answer only 77 percent correctly.

In the world of statistics, there's a name for this kind of calculation: "exponential regression curve." The result of using this metric is that high scores are penalized and low scores are artificially inflated.

Statistically, the state can certainly make an argument about the validity and reliability of these exams. But in practice, students who benefit from the statistical curve at the lower end are given a false sense of their capabilities, while those at the high end are being told they know less than they actually do. The approach is fundamentally flawed.

These statistical issues are not merely theoretical arguments among educators. They have real-world consequences for students. Much has been written about the need to close the achievement gap in our schools and create an environment in which we are preparing students to be "college and career ready" -- worthy goals. But artificially raising the scores of our most challenged students while deflating the scores of our most talented ones is not the way to create equity.

Being college and career ready, as defined by New York State, requires in part that a student achieve an 80 or better on the algebra Regents -- a score that equates to 62 percent correct. Are our students really prepared for college-level math if they're only getting 62 percent correct on the algebra exam?

Solving today's complex educational problems is anything but simple. But giving tests that don't accurately communicate how students are performing, calculating scores in ways that require an advanced math degree to decipher, and promoting success based on statistical manipulations are clearly not the solution.

I recommend we go back to basics. Let's score tests out of 100 and lose the complicated math formulas. Let's provide information to parents and students that's easily accessible and digestible, so that final exams once again become a tool for learning and not simply an inaccurate measurement of how well a teacher is performing.

By all means, let's raise our expectations for what our students can learn, and hold them and their teachers accountable. But let's do it through meaningful assessments that don't need to be curved, and which are built by teachers and administrators in their field, not by test companies making profits on the backs of our children.

Most importantly, let's direct necessary resources to our struggling learners in ways that support them so we can truly close the achievement gap and not do so through statistical gymnastics.

Daniel Brenner is superintendent of Roslyn Public Schools.

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