States Lower Accountability Bar to Boost Pass Rates

Published September 1, 2004

Although pass rates on state exams are a key accountability provision of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), several states are weakening that component by lowering the number of correct answers required on accountability exams in order to get more students to pass. A recent example comes from Georgia, where The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported the questions on the state’s third-grade reading test were essentially “speed bumps on the road to fourth grade.”

The Georgia Department of Education requires students to answer only 17 of the 40 test questions correctly to pass the exam and advance to the fourth grade. However, data from the department show 16 of the 40 test questions are “easy,” with 75 percent or more of the students getting them right. Georgia officials acknowledge children narrowly passing the test may need remedial help in fourth grade.

Georgia students are not alone in needing to answer less than a majority of questions correctly in order to pass a state accountability exam. In Texas, for example, students needed to answer correctly only 29 of 60 mathematics questions in order to pass the mathematics section of the accountability exam.

Test scores are not the only accountability measures being manipulated. Although 30 to 40 percent of Texas public school students drop out before graduation, the state lists an official dropout rate–part of the state’s accountability standards–of less than 2 percent. That’s because Texas public school officials have at least 20 ways to classify a student who disappears from school, only one of which carries the “dropout” label.

Since states were free to develop the details of their own accountability systems for NCLB, this created incongruities in initial reporting, as the difference between Arkansas and Michigan illustrates. Although 40 percent of Arkansas public school fourth-graders scored “below basic” on the 2003 reading exam conducted by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), Arkansas reported there were no failing schools in the state. In Michigan, the percentage of fourth-graders scoring “below basic” on reading was 10 percent lower than in Arkansas on the same exam, yet Michigan initially reported having 1,500 failing public schools.

Subsequently, Michigan officials adjusted their standards downwards, lowering the required passing rate on the high school English test from 75 percent to 42 percent. That helped reduce the number of failing schools in Michigan from 1,500 to 216.

Matthew Ladner, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is director of state projects at the Phoenix-based Alliance for School Choice.