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Education Reporter

Grading on NY State Math Exams Doesn't Add Up
Student scores on the New York state math test are up in every grade tested this year, with some grades showing astonishing double-digit gains. Some experts and critics charged the tests were easier than prior years, despite education officials' promises to "strengthen" and "increase the rigor" of both the questions and the scoring for the 1.2 million kids who took the math exams in May.

A Brooklyn teacher hired to help score the tests was so angry about the grading standards that she went to the media even before the test scores were announced to the public. "They were giving credit for blatantly wrong things," she told the New York Post.

A scoring guide provided by the whistleblower revealed that kids got half-credit or more for showing fragments of a calculation — even if they executed it incorrectly or left the answer blank. Some examples from the fourth-grade scoring guide include:

  • Setting up a division problem to find one-fifth of $400, without solving the problem and leaving the answer blank, got half-credit.
  • Subtracting 57 cents from three quarters to determine the correct amount of change and answering 15 cents instead of 18 cents still received half-credit.
  • Calculating the numbers of books in 35 boxes with ten books per box as 150 instead of 350 got half-credit.

The Brooklyn teacher said she had scored tests with "controversial questions" in past years, but "this time it was more outrageous." She said she and her peers were stunned at some of the instructions this year, adding, "You feel like you're being forced to cheat." Some of her colleagues joked about giving kids credit for writing their names on the test, bringing their own pencil or sharing gum with friends.

But score inflation is not funny, said the teacher. "The kids who really need the help are just being shuffled along to the next grade without the skills to have true success. They are given a hollow success- that's the crime of it."

State Education Department spokesman Tom Dunn defended the grading instructions, stating, "Students who show work and demonstrate a partial understanding of the mathematical concepts or procedures embodied in the question receive partial credit."

Among experts who suggested parents should not accept the elevated scores at face value is Robert Tobias, a former top testing official for the New York Board of Education. "Given that the scores are going up to a very large degree, especially in certain grades, it suggests the test is probably easier than it was in the past," he said.

Meanwhile, state officials celebrated and congratulated themselves. "The era of year in and year out stagnant classroom performance is over," said Mayor Bloomberg, whose school reform plan includes paying cash bonuses to students, teachers and principals when state test scores increase.

Education Commissioner Richard Mills attributed the rise in scores to increased spending, a statewide curriculum, and improved teacher training. "The bottom line is this," he said, "Performance is up in mathematics. It's up in English and more students are meeting the standards." (New York Post, 6-6-10; New York Daily News, 6-24-10)

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