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.

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