Institutionalized Score Mangling

For some reason, there's been a bunch of stories of schools secretly boosting near-failing grades recently. A few that come to mind:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?


  1. Hello Pr. Collins,

    Yes, unfortunately this takes place. In my case a professor does not even make a secret out of it. The passing score for our final exam is 58%, which is alone a quite low passing score. The prof. told us directly that he would add extra 20% to every student just because. That simple. Isn’t it outrageous? How his students will have any incentive to study if the grades are simply given away? One of my classmate listens [???] all class long with his head on the desk, several others do not bother to write the notes, the attendance of many is far from being perfect, and I (as you see) have time to look around and notice what everyone else does))). That's an almost sure thing though, that we will get decent grades (or at least passing ones). Such a practice is unfair to students who will be prepared for the next level course poorly. It is unfair to more diligent and capable students getting 100% on their test, because they will end up with the same score as those who get 80%. And how can any good student be confident and proud of his/her success if s/he doesn’t know whether it is the real or the “bettered” score? Finally amending grades in such a way is unjust to the future employers of such unqualified “professionals”. You see, this practice appears to only favor the slacking students and careless professors whose only goal is [keeping their cushy faculty spot] to live and let live.

    P.S. Despite being a student I would rather my professors didn’t use such dishonest procedures. There are so many ways to give students a chance to improve their academic performance in more appropriate ways: extra credits, quizzes, etc.

    1. I'm always intensely pained when I hear stories like that. Not knowing what your school is, that always does strike me as sign of a poorly planned course. There really should be reasonable and clear expectations for success in any course, and tests which are aligned with those expectations. Passing marks ought to be concrete evidence of specific skill-mastery, not just how many people did worse, which is frankly irrelevant.

      Now, one thing I'd say is it's bad enough to do this in one class, but when an entire institution, state, or country does it wholesale then it's recipe for total disaster.

      The other thing I'd say is, unintuitively, most college instructors are really promoted for their research and not the quality of their classroom instruction. I've actually had a dean at a prior school outright laugh in my face when I said he should hire me because I'm a good teacher, thinking that was somehow relevant.

  2. "...[M]ost college instructors are really promoted for their research and not the quality of their classroom instruction..."

    May be I don’t have enough credentials to say that I agree with you, but I think you are right about this statement. Knowing the subject is so not enough to be a good teacher. Unfortunately some professors don’t seem to realize that.

    One of my spring 2013 professors had Ph.D., published outside the college, but honestly needed to advance his teaching skills. What is the use for us of his doctoral degree if he simply recited the textbook? There were incidents where students asked him questions, and he just looked at the class and smiled (I suppose he thought those questions were extremely stupid and didn’t think it was necessary to answer them). Well, not many have Ph.Ds. before they actually graduate, so not knowing some stuff by students is understandable.

    I don’t know how are teachers in the USA are prepared exactly, but suspect that they are rather taught the subject and not so much the skills to teach that subject. My sister studied to be an English teacher (English as foreign language). She asked me once to translate some word for her into English, and when I expressed my surprise in the fact that she didn’t know the translation herself, she said, “I was taught to be an English teacher, not to know English perfectly.” Although knowing the subject you teach is absolutely important, I believe that along with teaching the actual major to graduate students (who plan to become college/school professors), the institutions should teach them pedagogy and other relevant subjects.

    Teaching the subject takes more than knowing the subject. I am glad that there are some that approach teaching itself bona fide. And I am glad that I had a few (three actually) great professors in KBCC who were capable of exciting an interest to the course in their students, who managed to stimulate students with healthy challenge and not just prepare us for the tests.

    Oh, before I finish this super long discourse let me share one incident that literally enraged me once. It was the last day of our course and since everything in the course was covered, you were summing the material up for into an organized picture. As you came to an end of the introductory statistics you proceeded to the "t-procedure" run to estimate pop. mean when pop. STDEV is not known. One student asked, somewhat accusingly, 'Is this going to be on the test?" At that moment I thought, "So, that's is what you want? Him to simply prepare you for the test? He is one of a few who cares about his subject a lot and makes efforts to bring about the same in his students and you just want to nip this initiative in the bud and give you a blueprint for solving problems on the test? "

    1. Thanks for writing that up. The issue of college professors not being trained or promoted for teaching skills is very old, and often called the "publish or perish" issue (link). That phrase originated in the 1930's and is still true today.

      Good catch on my last-day presentation, it's something that usually happens term after term. Now I head it off by saying that the last question on the final exam will indeed be "something we covered on this last day". :-)

  3. Gerald Turnquist wrote:

    I think part of the pressure to fudge grades to produce a pass is that if you haven't mastered enough of the material to achieve that pass, you have to take the whole class (or even grade) over again. If only it were possible to identify the problem areas, work on them, and retest - repeating as often as necessary. I would also set the pass grade much higher, say 80 or 90 percent. Shocking, right? But is it more shocking than now where you are considered an excellent student if you are ignorant of 20 percent of the material in every class and are moved on for years with congratulations all around?

    I don't honestly know how to create the flexible scheduling needed for this and to remove the notion of grades (as in Grade 8, Grade 9, etc.) tied to the calendar and the student's age, It will take a revolution. But I do know that the current system of pushing students along in cohorts regardless is totally for the convenience of the system and not for the students or their education. Then they leave high school, attempt university, and find out how ignorant they really are. Really, why should remedial classes be needed at all except maybe for a few mature students needing a refresher?

    1. I think those are some really good points. In particular I'd agree with a pass grade of 80 or 90... you really need that level of mastery of everything to succeed at the next level of any math sequence. (Our school has tried for 75% but there's been overwhelming pushback.)

      Side story: Our school rolled out a program for students who fail at remedial algebra 3+ times, there's an alternative program where they can receive a laptop with self-paced tutorial software. Interestingly, when I suggest this to individual students the reaction is mostly "no way, I need to be in class [with a human instructor]", which kind of makes sense to me. So the revolution required to give each student effectively a personal tutor when that's required is a really tough nut to crack (resource-wise).

  4. Perhaps it's a sign of my discipline that I see a difference between some of those stories. Obviously, altering grades is dishonest and unacceptable, but that is why I make it clear in my syllabus that the final grade includes a "fudge factor" of a few points that is subject to my judgment. Since I teach in the humanities and grading an essay is an inexact science to say the least, I don't feel comfortable automatically failing a student who gets a 58.5 rather than a 60, for instance, for the simple fact that being able to assign, in this context, a grade to one significant digit seems like false precision.

    This was a much discussed issue where I did my graduate work - can any of us really tell the difference between an essay that is a 70 and one that is a 72, say? Are such distinctions even meaningful? I may know the difference between an A essay and a B essay, to be sure, but anything more precise than that and I start to hedge my bets. That's why students that seem to be making a game effort and participating well in class get the benefit of the doubt in assigning final grades, even if that benefit amounts to two or three points.

    That said, the "false precision" concern is obviously only an issue for certain disciplines. Clearly, in STEM disciplines, it's much easier to quantify the exact degree to which a student did or did not meet expectations, and so I can certainly see the argument for not "fudging" a student's grade in that case. Likewise, I would oppose such "fudging" as an institutional policy even in the humanities, and only "bump up" students who were within a few points of passing on the basis of a specific recommendation from the student's instructor, who is in the best position to assess the matter.

    1. One thing I'll say is that I've confronted similar "soft" grading issues in the past when I assign a programming project or research paper in statistics. Early on I was grading single-percent items at a time, before I realized that was unproductive for a whole host of reasons. Later I got in the habit of establishing a 4-point rubric for anything like that, i.e. the grade was literally just one of ABCDF (4 to 0 points), which then turned into a fixed number each in the averaging process.

      I even use it to score my D&D convention games now! Link.