- Just this weekend -- Hempstead High School on Long Island (somewhat near me) has a scandal of regular boosting failing 63 and 64 scores to passing 65's in any class from grades 6-12. Apparently this has been done for some number of decades, and the Deputy Superintendent defends it as customary at their school and others (although it was done in secret and not any documented policy). Other schools nearby deny that they engage in the same practice.
- Early last month, an Indian student attending Cornell University accessed and mined the data from the Indian national high school exams from the last year, and found that the scores being reported were very clearly manipulated in some secret way, as there were irregular gaps in the achieved scores across all subject areas. In particular -- none of the scores 32, 33, or 34 were achieved by any student for any subject in the entire country, whereas 35 is the minimum to pass.
- Less publicized (but perhaps more dramatic) is the fact that New York State Regents Examinations are in some sense getting easier, as the high school system brags about increased graduation rates at the same time as their graduates needing remedial instruction in college reaches around 80%. Someone who really ought to know told me that the scores on the exams are effectively mangled by administrators in Albany, i.e., a 45% raw performance is reported as a passing scaled score of "70" and so forth.
All of this certainly seems really bad to me in a first-pass "smell test" of credibility. It just seems like any kind of secret score-mangling is a foul wind that carries with it lack of transparency, disbelief in results, corruption, etc. Interestingly, a great many commentators at Slashdot (around the Indian story) said things like "this is done everywhere, if you don't understand it then you don't know anything about teaching", which is false in my experience. But apparently the motivation is frequently to avoid conflict and time spent around complaints over barely-failing scores. Some other institutional strategies I've seen or heard about to deal with this issue:
- Those who miss passing by 5% get to immediately take a re-test. I haven't seen this, but I've heard it said of other universities.
- Those who miss passing by 5% get a one-week refresher seminar, and can then re-test on the final. A somewhat more subtle version of the preceding which is used where I teach at CUNY for math remediation.
- Keeping both scores and the passing criteria itself secret -- reporting only pass-or-fail results for the test. This was done in the past at my college, allegedly to forestall complaints over scores. It's pretty much my least favorite option, because it just made everyone involved confused and upset over the secret criteria and unknown scores.
Now, I'm always in favor of maximal transparency, honesty, and confidence in any kind of process like this. But in some cases I've found myself to be a lone voice for this principle. Is this kind of secret score-mangling an acceptable social massaging of high-stakes testing, or is it the harbinger of corruption and non-confidence in our institutions? Do we even have any choice in the matter anymore, as educators or citizens?