Peter Greene: Who Sets the Passing Marks on Standardized Tests?

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Peter Greene thinks you should know the truth. There is no objective way to set passing marks (known as “cut scores”) for standardized tests. The line between “excellence,” “proficient,” “basic,” and “failing” is arbitrary.


Peter writes:


If you are imagining that cut scores for the high-stakes accountability tests are derived through some rigorous study of exactly what students need to know and what level of proficiency they should have achieved by a certain age– well, first, take a look at what you’re assuming. Did you really think we have some sort of master list, some scholastic Mean Sea Level that tells us exactly what a human being of a certain age should know and be able to do as agreed upon by some wise council of experty experts? Because if you do, you might as well imagine that those experts fly to their meetings on pink pegasi, a flock of winger horsies that dance on rainbows and take minutes of the Wise Expert meetings by dictating to secretarial armadillos clothed in shimmering mink stoles.


Anyway, it doesn’t matter because there are no signs that any of these people associated with The Test are trying to work with a hypothetical set of academic standards anyway. Instead, what we see over and over (even back in the days of NCLB), is educational amateurs setting cut scores for political purposes. So SBAC sets a cut score so that almost two thirds of the students will fail. John King in New York famously predicted the percentage of test failure before the test was even out the door– but the actual cut scores were set after the test was taken.


That is not how you measure a test result against a standard. That’s how you set a test standard based on the results you want to see. It’s how you make your failure predictions come true. According to Carol Burris, King also attempted to find some connection between SAT results and college success prediction, and then somehow graft that onto a cut score for the NY tests, while Kentucky and other CCSS states played similar games with the ACT.


Actually, both of the federally-funded testing consortia (PARCC and SBAC) agreed to align their cut scores with those of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, so that “proficient” would be the same as NAEP proficient. The problem there is that Massachusetts is the only state in the nation where as many as 50% of students reached NAEP Proficient. In fact, NAEP proficient is a very high standard. NAEP has four achievement levels: advanced (which is about 8-10%) of students, truly superior performance; proficient (which is “solid academic achievement,” which I consider to be akin to an A or A-); basic (which is akin to the range of B or C); and below basic (failing).


Writing in Education Week, Catherine Gewertz wrote that:


It’s one thing for all but a few states to agree on one shared set of academic standards. It’s quite another for them to agree on when students are “college ready” and to set that test score at a dauntingly high place. Yet that’s what two state assessment groups are doing.


The two common-assessment consortia are taking early steps to align the “college readiness” achievement levels on their tests with the rigorous proficiency standard of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a move that is expected to set many states up for a steep drop in scores.


After all, fewer than four in 10 children reached the “proficient” level on the 2013 NAEP in reading and math.

By aligning with NAEP proficient, the two consortia assured that the majority of students would not pass either test. That is entirely predictable, because less than 40% typically reach NAEP proficient. Although the U.S. has seen significant improvement over the past 20 years, especially from “below basic” to “basic,” most students have not reached NAEP proficient. Thus, unless the two consortia change their cut scores, we can anticipate that most students in the U.S. will “fail” the Common Core tests for the foreseeable future. “Reformers” think this will set off popular demand for charter schools and voucher schools, but in New York, the charter schools performed no better on the Common Core tests than the public schools, and voucher schools have never outperformed public schools in any city. The likely outcome of this absurd decision about cut scores will be to encourage the anti-testing movement.



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