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.”

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

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”