Guessing My Way to Promotion

Last week I read a thought-provoking column by Diane Ravitch in the New York Post, in which she discusses the lowering of the bar on New York State math and ELA tests. She points out that to reach level 2, which is sufficient for promotion in New York City, a student needs a significantly lower percentage of points than he or she would have needed three years ago. Ravitch comments. “Ending social promotion, as the city rightly wants to do, is thus meaningless, because students can reach Level 2 by just guessing.”

Likewise, Meredith Kolodner writes in the Daily News, “The number of correct answers needed to score a Level 2 to get promoted has sunk so low that a student can guess on the multiple choice section and leave the rest of the test blank.”

This is disturbing. Surely it isn’t possible to get a 2—and thus a promotion to the next grade—by just guessing! Or is it?

To find out, I conducted a little experiment. First, some background facts:

(a)Each question on each of the tests is worth a certain number of points. The total number of points earned on a given test is the raw score. (b) Each test has its own conversion table for converting the raw score to a scale score. (c) The conversion from scale score to proficiency level is different for each grade and subject (though 650 is the minimum for a level 3 across the board). (d) Thus, to find out if a student got a 2 on a test, you have to (1) correct the test, (2) calculate the raw score, (3) convert it to scale score, and then (4) convert the scale score to proficiency level.

The New York State Education Department website has all the tests, scoring keys, and tables you need.

Now follow along with me as I reproduce the experiment. My question was: is it possible to get a 2 by just guessing?

I first tried my experiment with the sixth grade ELA test. I “guessed” all the answers on the multiple-choice portion and left the written portions blank. Or, rather, I didn’t “guess,” but filled in the answers as follows: A, B, C, D, A, B, C, D, and so on, all the way through the 26 questions. I didn’t read one of them.

Now, of course I got a zero on the written portions, but let’s see if I got enough points on the multiple-choice questions alone. To find out, I first consulted the scoring key. The total number of possible raw points is 39: 26 for the multiple-choice questions, and 13 for the written portions I scored myself. Remember that I answered A, B, C, D, A, B, C, D, etc. According to the key, I earned 12 points.

Now I went to the raw to scale score conversion chart to calculate my scale score (if you are following along, be sure to click on the “Grade 6” tab at the bottom of the chart). According to this chart, my scale score was 622.

From here I consulted the “Definitions of Performance Levels for the 2009 Grades 3-8 English Language Arts Tests.” According to this table, a sixth grader needs a scale score of 598-649 in order to attain level 2. My score fell within that range, so I got a 2 without looking at a single test question or writing a single word.

I thought to myself: What if the sixth grade ELA test were a fluke? I tried the same experiment with the seventh grade math test.

Again, I only worried about the multiple-choice questions. Actually I didn’t worry about them at all; I simply answered them A, B, C, D, A, B, C, D, as I had done with the sixth-grade ELA test. There were thirty such questions.

I then went to the scoring key. I scored 11 raw points. According to the raw score to scale score conversion chart, this gave me a scale score of 616 (be sure to scroll down to the 7th grade chart). Is that enough for a 2? I consulted the “Definitions of Performance Levels for the 2009 Grades 3-8 Mathematics Tests.” A seventh grader needs a scale score of 611-649 on the math test to get a 2. So I got a 2 without solving a single math problem, or even looking at one.

While this approach does not result in a 2 for all the tests, it comes a bit too close for comfort, and another guessing system might work. A fifth grader told me that his father had told him, “Just mark ‘C’ for all of the answers, and you will pass.” On the fifth grade ELA test, this would indeed have resulted in a 2.

Yes, it is possible to guess your way to promotion. You may not even have to look at the questions or write a word on the written sections. It may not be called social promotion, but it amounts to the same thing: You do not need to know or understand much to move along.

Diana Senechal taught in NYC public schools for four years and has stepped back to write a book. She has a Ph.D. in Slavic Languages and Literatures from Yale; her education writing has appeared in Education Week, the Core Knowledge Blog, and Joanne Jacobs.

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