New York

If the state tests are easier, how did they get that way?

The flat scores New York students received on a national math exam released today have led some to question the validity of the huge jump in state math scores over the same time period.

The results seem to support skeptics who have argued that the statewide exam questions have become easier and more repetitive, the scores inflated, and the number of questions required to pass so low students can hop the bar just by guessing.

“This is a documentation of persistent dumbing down by the state education department and lying to the public,” education historian Diane Ravitch wrote today in an e-mail. “Exactly what Arne Duncan has been saying: When states dumb down their standards, they are lying to the kids, their parents and the public.”

But the question remains: if state exams have gotten easier, how and why did that happen?

The state standards and cutoff scores for passage have been constant since the early 2000s. But the number of correct answers needed to pass has gradually declined since 2006. Each year, a panel of test experts and educators convene as the exams are being field tested and judge each year’s questions according to their difficulty levels. The test-maker, CTB/McGraw Hill, then adjusts how it converts the number of correct answers to the scale score he or she receives.

In recent years, the number of questions judged difficult on the exams has risen, and thus the number of correct answers needed to pass has fallen, test experts have said.

But a side effect of this process has been that those numbers have fallen so low that students who randomly guess their way through the exams are statistically likely to still receive a passing score. And, analysts of the exam have pointed out that virtually all students receive enough points on the free-response section of the exam that the bar for guessing on the multiple choice section is lowered even further.

The situation is complicated further by the fact that the test questions may not be as difficult as test-makers believe them to be, because of the way the state field tests the exams to gauge their difficulty before giving them to all students. In New York, students who sit for the field tests are told that the exam they are about to take is only experimental.

This creates a motivational problem, test experts have said, in which students don’t take the experimental tests seriously and perform worse than would on a real exam. The conclusions test-makers draw from the field test results are then flawed; the test questions could then seem more difficult than they are. That misunderstanding would then have repercussions as the number of questions required to pass are scaled downward.

This gradual process of lowering the standards on the state exams has happened entirely as the tests are developed. But experts also have not ruled out the possibility that external factors, such as increased teaching to the test, have also contributed to the swift rise in scores.

Daniel Koretz, the Harvard education professor who has written extensively about standardized testing, has told me that the “700-pound gorilla” in New York state was that no one yet knows if the state tests are measuring real learning, and if not, what exactly is wrong with them.

Koretz and another testing expert, Howard Everson, have been calling for more than a year for an independent academic study examining the state exams’ credibility.

Both Koretz and Everson suspect that a phenomenon called “score inflation” may have contributed to the jump in scores over the years since the tests were last overhauled. Score inflation happens when scores rise artificially because of factors other than true understanding of the content–because teachers have coached students on how to ace predictable tests, for example, or because they give students extra time.

The state has thus far declined the opportunity to participate in any studies looking at how credible the exam results are.

But the pressure is mounting to re-examine the state tests.

Everson, who also chairs a committee of test experts that oversees the state testing process, said this afternoon that he was glad that the national math scores have re-focused attention on possible problems with the state tests.

“I’m encouraged that the new chancellor and commissioner are taking this very seriously,” he said. “I don’t want them to lose their momentum, so if this gives them more fuel for the fire, I think that’s great.”

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede