Knowing State Tests' 'Cut' Scores

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.

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.

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."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company