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SCHOOLS & LEARNING

Knowing State Tests' 'Cut' Scores

Charonda Godette, 17, left, has struggled to pass several Virginia Standards of Learning exams. The Potomac Senior High School senior finds it frustrating to not know how many correct answers are needed to pass the tests. With her is her mother, Carole Godette.
Charonda Godette, 17, left, has struggled to pass several Virginia Standards of Learning exams. The Potomac Senior High School senior finds it frustrating to not know how many correct answers are needed to pass the tests. With her is her mother, Carole Godette. (By Richard A. Lipski -- The Washington Post)

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By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 22, 2007

Charonda Godette and her mother are staring at a sheaf of black-and-white test reports in their kitchen, frustrated by a blunt indictment repeated over and over: "Fail/Does Not Meet." In her first three years at Potomac Senior High School in Prince William County, the 17-year-old has flunked a slew of Virginia Standards of Learning exams: Earth science. Algebra II. And geometry -- three times.

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What also confounds Charonda and Carole Godette is something the reports omit. They do not show the number of correct answers required to pass the exams.

"If I know how many questions I need to get right, I can push myself more," Charonda said. "You have to have a good plant in your mind that you have to do this to pass."

With more students taking more achievement tests than ever, one of the most influential but cryptic factors driving results used to rate schools for the federal No Child Left Behind law and enforce state graduation standards is the passing, or "cut," score. Numerous Washington area students and parents said in interviews that they do not know the cut scores, information they say would help them understand the test more and help them do better. Often, the benchmarks turn out to be lower than they might have guessed.

It also turns out that Virginia publishes and explains its cut scores on a Web site of which the Godettes were unaware. Virginia officials acknowledged that the information can be hard to find but said it is useful to parents who might be confused about the exams.

Sometimes cut scores are buried in obscure public records, and sometimes they are withheld from the public entirely. D.C. school officials provided cut scores when a reporter requested them. Maryland is one of several states that don't disclose cut scores; officials fear that publicizing the information could give teachers an incentive to cover less of the curriculum.

For students, the bottom line is how many answers they need to get right. Students say they would care more about the tests and score higher if they knew cut scores such as these: Eighth-graders taking the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System math test need to get 31 out of 60 questions right, or 52 percent; eighth-graders need 32 out of 50 on Virginia's Standards of Learning math test, or 64 percent.

Some students on the borderline of passing are heartened to learn of cut scores they consider equivalent to flunking on a regular test in class.

"It's not hard to get an F," said Roger Lassiter, 17, one of Charonda's classmates.

Even teachers who help set cut scores can find them confusing. Many who participated in a Maryland benchmark-setting session that was observed this month by The Washington Post struggled to balance lofty academic goals with their awareness that lots of low-achieving or unmotivated students take the tests.

The subjective nature of cut scores has created some easy state exams and some hard ones, studies have found. Critics of No Child Left Behind wield those findings to push for a national test or national standards, to ensure that states can't game the accountability system. But national standards are unlikely to win passage anytime soon.

Federal law requires states to devise exams to test students in reading, math and science but leaves details such as cut scores up to states. States "pay 90 percent of the bill and have the right to set their own standards," said U.S. Education Department spokeswoman Samara Yudof. Many students are required to pass state tests to get a high school diploma.


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