City: Rate of just-passing Regents scores has dropped by half

A series of changes to the way Regents exams are graded has dramatically slimmed down the number of scores that are exactly passing, according to the Department of Education.

In 2010, 7 percent of exams citywide received the lowest passing score, a 65. This year, that proportion was just 3.5 percent, officials said.

The number of 65s awarded on the five exams required for graduation rose sharply between 2006 and 2009. The recent decline came as the city implemented several new rules prompted by the bulge in the number of 65s, which suggested that teachers might be bumping up the scores of students on the verge of passing, sometimes illicitly.

Department officials said the reduction in the number of 65s showed that the policy changes had successfully curbed incentives to pad students’ scores.

“Even if the higher percentage of 65s wasn’t due to intentional cheating but well-meaning people making sure kids have the best chance to graduate, what we see … is that there isn’t that incentive to push a score to 65,” said Deputy Chief Academic Officer Adina Lopatin.

The department released the data in response to a new report by the Independent Budget Office that looks at Regents passing patterns for students who entered high school in 2005. Confirming conventional wisdom and a slew of recent studies, the report found that the more Regents exams a student had passed early in high school, the more likely he was to graduate on time.

The IBO’s analysis found that students were more likely to score exactly 65 the later they were in their high school careers, reflecting both the relatively low academic proficiency of those students and their schools’ added incentive to push them over the finish line to graduation.

The IBO also found that nearly a third of students had received one or more 65s in half of the 265 high schools where at least a quarter of their graduates earned Regents diplomas in 2009.

That finding was in line with the department’s own recognition that some schools were inappropriately awarding passing course grades and exam scores. This spring, department officials re-scored Regents exams with scores just over the passing threshold at 60 schools last year as part of a broad audit of academic data. At 14 schools, exams in at least one subject received passing scores when they should not have, according to the audit report. At four of the schools, the inflation swept across multiple subjects, the department found.

That change followed state mandates about Regents scoring in 2011. That year, the state began requiring schools to scan students’ answer sheets before grading, increasing accuracy and reducing opportunities for cheating. It also prohibited teachers from re-scoring exams that had not passed, a practice that had previously been required in some subjects for scores between 60 and 64.

That year, the proportion of 65’s awarded across the city dropped to between 4 and 4.5 percent, according to the Department of Education.

The state also told districts to stop allowing high school teachers to grade their own students’ exams. The city took the directive one step further and began rolling out a new Regents scoring system in which teachers do not score any exams from their own school. Last year, when 160 high schools participated in “distributed scoring,” the proportion of 65s fell to 3.5 percent.

Lopatin said department officials expect the proportion of 65s to decline yet again this year, when all schools will participate in distributed scoring. Principals are attending trainings this week in each borough to prepare them for January’s Regents exams, the first time that about 300 high schools will have their exams scored under the new system.

Teachers who participated in the distributed scoring pilot told GothamSchools this summer that they thought the arrangement would generate lower scores, on average. But the educators were divided on whether the deflation would be fair, with some arguing that graders should know context about students and schools before judging students’ performance.

“I’m concerned my students who chose to write about [the Venetian salt trade] were graded unfairly because the teacher didn’t know that information,” said Peter Lapré, a social studies at Park East High School who said he covered the unorthodox topic extensively.

Other teachers said they doubted colleagues from other schools would be as attentive while grading about preventing careless scoring errors from costing a student the score he needs to graduate.

“Because it’s not their students, will they care as much as we care?” said Monica Mazzocchi, who teaches at New Utrecht High School.

The IBO report suggests that scores increased when teachers and schools had more reasons to care about whether students passed their exams. In 2007, the city began giving high schools an annual letter grade based in part on their students’ Regents passing rates and on their graduation rates. Schools with low grades faced closure.

At the same time, students were being required to earn more grades above 65 than ever. Students who entered high school before 2005 were only required to post 55s or higher to graduate. But as part of a decade-long process to eliminate a less rigorous diploma option, the state began requiring entering students to pass one more exam at a 65 each year. Students who entered in 2008 were the first to be required to earn five 65s.

According to the IBO, 3.8 percent of math Regents exams received 65s in 2006. Three years later, that figure was 8.3 percent. In English, 4.9 percent of students received exactly a 65 in 2006. A full 10 percent of students got 65s in English in 2009.

Another 2 to 3 percent of math and science exams in 2010 received a 66, one point over passing, according to the IBO’s data.

The Department of Education is set to release high schools’ 2011-2012 letter grades next week.