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Answer Sheet
Posted at 06:00 AM ET, 07/01/2011

What accounts for PG’s unusual test scores?

The release this week of 2011 Maryland State Assessments revealed this detail:

The pass rate in math for seventh-grade students jumped six points to 60 percent. But for eighth-graders, the pass rate increased by three points to 44 percent, which remains far below the state average.

What happened?

(Overall, performance improved statewide this year from 2010 for elementary students in reading and for middle school students in math, my colleague Michael Chandler reported. according to results of the Maryland State Assessments released Wednesday. The exams were given to more than 360,000 students in grades 3-8 earlier this year.)

The difference in performance between seventh and eighth grade could be a result of several causes, including:

*Algebra starts in eighth grade, and it is harder than seventh grade math

*The eighth grade test is harder and it is tougher to pass.

According to Bob Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a non-profit organization that is dedicated to ending what it says are misuses and flaws in standardized testing, setting passing levels for standardized tests is often inconsistent and inherently subjective.

*Retention patterns. A higher percentage of low-performing students may “pile up” in eighth grade classrooms, sometimes for multiple years. This would result in lower passing rates, even if the tests were at the same level of difficulty.

*Maryland’s seventh grade curriculum is more closely aligned with the state exam than the eighth grade curriculum is. In this situation, seventh grade scores would be better even if teacher (and student) quality were identical.

*The eighth grade math teachers in Prince George’s County should all be fired. (I mean that as a joke, although I bet someone, somewhere, likes the idea.)

*Scoring errors.

*Other technical factors, which cannot be easily pinpointed without an independent, external review.

And that is the problem.

There are so many things that can — and do — go wrong with standardized tests that using them to make high-stakes decisions about schools, students, teachers, prinicipals, school systems and states is just plain nutty.

Policymakers can call high-stakes test the best “accountability” measure all they want. Saying it over and over doesn't make it right.

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By  |  06:00 AM ET, 07/01/2011

 
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