Results from New York City’s (NYC) 2016 Common Core-aligned exams show significant gains in student proficiency, sparking a debate over whether the test scores are inflated.
During the 2012–13 school year, New York public school students in grades 3–8 began taking assessments aligned with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), a set of national standards dictating what students should know at the end of each grade level. In 2016, 21 percent of students eligible to take the state’s standardized test opted out, an increase of 1 percentage point compared to 2015.
NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYC Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña announced in July the city’s 3–8 grade students had made substantial gains on the state’s standardized tests. The results show an overall increase of 1.2 percentage points in math proficiency since 2015 and an increase of 6.8 percentage points since 2013. In English, proficiency is up by 7.6 percentage points since 2015 and 11.6 percentage points since 2013.
“These results represent important progress and outline real improvements across each borough of our city,” de Blasio said in a statement following the release of the test results.
The New York Post, dubbing the situation “Inflate-gate,” reported in August, “The state has lowered the number of correct answers that students need to pass [on] 11 out of 12 Common Core exams this year, casting doubt on an across-the-board increase in NYC pass rates.”
The New York Daily News reported in July, “State education department officials shortened the exams for 2016 and eliminated time limits.”
New York State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said as she announced the test results, “Because of changes made to the 2016 exam and the testing environment, the 2016 test scores are not an apples-to-apples comparison with previous years and should not be viewed as such.”
Inflation Accusations Elsewhere
Richard Innes, an education analyst at The Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, says there is evidence Kentucky’s Common Core-aligned Kentucky Performance Rating for Educational Progress (KPREP) tests also have been inflated over time.
“Kentucky’s KPREP tests, even at the beginning, showed some type of inflation,” Innes said. “Across the board, test scores from Kentucky have moved away from national test scores. Obviously, KPREP scores are inflated.”
Innes says teachers and school districts have reason to inflate assessment results.
“If people are going to be held accountable for the results, they are going to inflate the grades,” Innes said. “KPREP is their report card too. The pressures to inflate are very strong.”
Innes says one way teachers skew the results is by excluding the scores of mentally disabled children, and they “get away with it because most people don’t know enough to ask the right questions.”
David C. Bloomfield—a professor of education leadership, law, and policy at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center—says score inflation is a “widespread” problem.
“It’s probably widespread, because when the test is repeated, the teachers get used to it and the scores go up,” Bloomfield said. “Many schools engage in teaching to the test, which I call ‘legalized cheating.’ It’s like having two equally smart people working crossword puzzles every day but one knows the patterns [and] can solve more of the puzzle, and that’s what’s going on with these tests.”
‘High Stakes Are the Problem’
Bloomfield says education leaders create problems by attaching too much importance to standardized tests.
“The tests are high-stakes with a huge emphasis on the results,” Bloomfield said. “In the 1950s, when I was taking standardized tests, it was a necessary evil. Today, the high stakes are the problem. It used to be you wouldn’t hear squat about tests and scores, and they’d leave them to the schools. Now, [from] the president on down [to local schools] have an opinion on testing and Common Core.”
Bloomfield says the politicization of student testing hurts kids.
“Politicians politicize [education] to their advantage, and that includes suggesting a crisis in education that can only be fixed with more money, but one never exists,” Bloomfield said. “If the scores are being inflated, children and parents are being shortchanged and public officials and test companies are the only winners. The subjects being tested are taught and others ignored. The joys of childhood are being diminished by the toil and stress of test preparation.”
‘Parents Smell a Rat’
Innes says standardized testing would benefit from impartial oversight.
“What needs to happen is the appointment of a separate, independent monitoring agency in every state,” Innes said.
Bloomfield says parents are becoming more aware of the problems with student testing systems.
“Parents don’t necessarily know what’s going on in the classroom; they learn about it through homework and test scores,” Bloomfield said. “They don’t like the huge demands and drudgery of preparing for the test, especially when they weren’t consulted on it by the local school board.
“Kids’ test scores are going up, but the parents smell a rat.”
Kenneth Artz ([email protected]) writes from Dallas, Texas.
“Proficient vs. Prepared,” Achieve.org, January 28, 2016: https://heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/