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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)

As Congress considers renewal of the five-year-old federal law, some lawmakers are calling for more scrutiny of state exams. President Bush has proposed that states post test results alongside scores on the federally funded National Assessment of Educational Progress.

At Charonda's home in a tidy Woodbridge development, tutoring books -- a Princeton Review SOL biology tome, another store-bought manual on Algebra II -- sit in the kitchen like broken appliances.

Charonda needs to pass either the geometry or the Algebra II exam to earn an advanced diploma and better her chances of getting into James Madison University, in the Shenandoah Valley. But she agonizes over how much more she needs to know to get the tests off her back. Her most recent report says she earned a 394 in Geometry, just shy of the 400 needed to pass on the 600-point scale. But that doesn't tell her how many more answers she needed right.

The Geometry cut score is on the state Education Department's Web site: 27 answers correct out of 45.

"If you barely pass . . . to me, that's good enough, because I never understood the class," said Charonda, who has trouble with pesky angles, circles and polygons.

To her mother, getting 60 percent of the questions correct, even if it is technically passing, is not acceptable. "I guess you'd be happy your child passed, but now what? Does she know anything more than before took she took the course?" Carole Godette asked.

Lil Tuttle, a former member of the Virginia Board of Education, said cut scores have always been too low. "I don't know many teachers who would set their own pass rate in class at 50 or 60 percent," Tuttle said. "What we have to have are standards that the public can understand, like A, B, C, D and F in the classroom. Not to set it up that way is incredibly confusing, and you need to get public buy-in."

It's debatable whether it's fair to equate cut scores to letter grades because some exams are easy, and some seem fit for junior Mensa membership. A new study from the District-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute found that Colorado asks fourth-graders whether Alec saw Paul running after Missy, while Massachusetts asks them to comprehend a Leo Tolstoy excerpt.

At a Marriott hotel in Towson last week, about a dozen middle school science teachers and curriculum specialists gathered to recommend cut scores for a Maryland School Assessment in science that debuted in the spring.

Some experts question this format. Andrew J. Rotherham, co-founder of the Washington-based think tank Education Sector and a member of the Virginia Board of Education, said it could be more appropriate for states to include high school or college teachers in setting middle school cut scores. "You want someone who will say, 'If you can't meet these standards, you're going to struggle in my English course,' " Rotherham said.

As the Maryland educators began, they were given a book of questions ordered from easiest to hardest, based on the percentage of students who got each question correct. They then marked the last question that they thought a barely passing student would get correct to reach "proficiency." This determined each teacher's initial recommended cut score.

Then the teachers debated their choices. Myra MacPherson, a Talbot County science teacher, looked at Alicia Feddor, a Howard County science resource teacher.

"And you had the highest cut score?" MacPherson asked her.

"Our expectation of proficiency is that they could interpret simple data," Feddor said.

Donna Motsay, a Harford County science teacher, shook her head, saying: "It's frustrating -- you know they should know certain material."

Before making recommendations to the State Board of Education, the teachers got to see how many would pass if their proposed cut scores were real. The impact data give them power to decide whether more kids will pass or fail. One official at the session warned them to tread carefully. "Don't go chasing numbers," he said. "That's not your job. Your job is to know your kids and the content."

Back in Prince William, Charonda remembers a teacher once told her the cut score for an exam. "She wanted to make sure we all passed," Charonda said. "She has the highest pass rate at school. She has an award for it and hangs it up at school."


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