battle of the bulge

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

Percentage of Regents exams scoring exactly 65, from 2010 to 2012.

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.

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 [email protected]

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.”