No Single Explanation For Md. Test Score Bump

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 27, 2008

Maryland educators this month celebrated a major jump in test scores, with achievement gaps narrowing and pass rates rising six percentage points in reading and four points in math. Then skeptics crashed the party.

The revelation that this year's Maryland School Assessments were a half-hour shorter than last year's raised suspicions among researchers who thought the scores were too good to be true. Here, some thought, was the smoking pencil.

The episode illustrates a basic disagreement within the education community over why scores are rising across the nation since the 2002 enactment of No Child Left Behind, which sets a goal of 100 percent proficiency by 2014: Are kids getting smarter, or are tests getting easier?

"The Congress has told governments and state school officials that all children must be magically proficient by 2014," said Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at the University of California at Berkeley. "They're finding ways to make sure everybody creeps toward universal proficiency."

Maryland officials removed a section of multiple-choice questions from state reading and math tests this year, shortening each from roughly three hours to two and a half. They did not publicly announce the change, although the 24 school-system superintendents were apprised in a June 2007 memo.

State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick said she did not even recall the change when she made the results public July 15. State officials contend that the revision had no bearing on results because only a few deleted questions counted toward student scores, and those were replaced.

"The 2008 results are absolutely comparable to every previous year back through 2003," said Ronald A. Peiffer, deputy state superintendent.

In the No Child Left Behind era, it is unusual for questions to be raised about state test results, based on changes to an exam that had not been publicly announced.

Researchers say there are many ways, intentionally or inadvertently, to skew a test: Replace difficult questions with simple ones. Assign more weight to easier questions to exaggerate small gains by weak students. Lower the passing score, so a student who gets half the questions right is judged a success.

Illinois, Missouri and Arizona all have publicly lowered passing scores on their tests, yielding higher pass rates. California officials shuffled the order of questions on the third-grade reading test two years ago, out of concern that the first question students saw was overly complex.

Virginia's Board of Education eased passing scores on several history and social studies tests in 2001. A subsequent Washington Post analysis found that the changes were responsible for about half of the increase in schools meeting state accreditation standards in 2002. State education spokesman Charles Pyle said there has been no easing of the tests since then. One significant change in 2006 actually made some tests harder, he said.

D.C. education officials say their testing system, introduced in 2006, has never been altered in a way that could make it easier. Scores in the District rose notably this year.

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