Thursday, April 24, 2008

Grade Inflation

In the 2007 New Jersey State High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA) exam, the Matawan-Aberdeen Regional School District has once again scored near the very bottom of its District Factor Group (DFG). In Language Arts Literacy (LAL), out of 45 high schools, we are ranked 26th in proficiency. That’s the good news. We’re ranked 40th in math and 41st in science (see Meanwhile, a majority of the school board members have been serving since 2002. Where is the parent outrage? Why haven’t parents demanded a better education for their children? Because parents and students alike have been deceived by systemic grade inflation.

I define grade inflation as the knowing assignment of a grade that substantially exaggerates the recipient’s proficiency level. If we choose to adopt the state’s minimal standards, then our students should be receiving classroom grades in line with their HSPA exams. If that were the case, 30% of our high school students would be failing science, another 29% would be failing math, and 10% would be failing English.

But wait, the HSPA scores themselves are inflated. Out of a possible 300 points, scoring 200-250 is proficient, and 250-300 is advanced proficient. That would suggest a student needs to correctly answer two-thirds of the questions to be proficient or five-sixths to be advanced proficient. However, every student starts with a base of 100 points and, unlike the SATs, no points are deducted for wrong answers. Discounting those hundred points, a student only needs to score 100 out of 200 (50%) to be proficient or 150 out of 200 (75%) to be advanced proficient.

In other words, nearly a third of our high school juniors couldn’t even score above the 50% mark in math or science. That’s a massive failure rate. Does that mean a third of our juniors are going home with F’s on their report cards or that only a minority of students scores above a C in their exams? Of course, not. Each teacher is encouraged to design the class curriculum and standards around the ability of the students. If the teacher perceives he’s instructing the “dummy” class, he’ll dumb down the material.

Both parents and students assume classroom exams reflect expectation levels, that a B means a B. Meanwhile, only 10% of our high school juniors can score 75% (the equivalent of a C) on the HSPA science exam.

Could it be that the HSPA exams are graded lower because they’re really, really, hard? No. The state provides samples of the Language Arts Literacy, Math, and Science assessments. The exams only test for competence, not advanced comprehension.

But wait, there’s more. Somehow, the vast majority of these students who don’t know math or science are still completing their HSPA requirements prior to graduation. Despite having a higher failure rate in math and science than the state average, 89% of our students ultimately fulfill the HSPA requirements compared to 80% for the rest of the state. (See New Jersey Report Card)

One possibility is that we put more effort and resources into assisting these students but there’s a problem with that notion as well. In a recent presentation to the school board, Assistant Superintendent Honnick compared our school district to others nearby and in the same DFG. Our high school was average in Language Arts Literacy and dead last in Math and Science. Yet, we have the highest graduation rate in the group.

Abysmal test scores but a fantastic graduation rate. It’s quite a feat and one I can’t explain.

As for those wondering why my earlier post was titled “Cheers – Overall Test Scores are Up”, in my book, anything below 65% is a failing grade, especially on a state exam. When measuring proficiency, I focus solely on the percentage of advanced proficient and those numbers did rise from the previous year.

What to do? First, we need to recognize that the New Jersey assessment exams are not educational tools. The state administers the exam mid-semester (March) and then doesn’t release the scores until the following year (February). It’s specifically done this way to prevent any school district from using the exams as a means of measuring teacher performance.

Our school district needs to be able to measure and track each student’s academic progress. One option is the nationally recognized TerraNova exams to measure and track each student. Personally, I prefer using an adaptive test like the NWEA exams. The difference is that TerraNova measures competency while the NWEA measures mastery. For example, TerraNova doesn’t consider how long it takes to answer a question, only whether the answer is right or wrong. It also doesn’t adjust difficulty levels based upon prior responses. When the NWEA application detects that someone is struggling with or flying through the exam, it automatically adapts until it finds questions at the appropriate difficulty level. Adaptive exams are far more accurate in pinpointing a student’s strengths and weaknesses.

Another necessary step is to raise the bar. Instead of training our students to meet the bare minimum legal standards, we can raise the bar by requiring our students to take, and pass, more demanding coursework. For example, we could begin requiring students to take Advanced Placement (AP) classes, have them pursue a degree through the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, participate in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), or require a minimum of advanced science and math classes to graduate.

Will students struggle to complete a more challenging course environment? Of course. That’s the point. Who ever heard of any noteworthy achievement that didn’t involve struggle? We push our athletes to win. We can push our students to excel. Even those that fail will be stronger from the effort.

At the very least, we need to accurately test our students. Inflated grades and false praise won’t prepare our children for tomorrow. Our parents and students need to know the truth.
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KrisMrsBBradley said...

I personally hate standardized testing. I have a mildly autistic child who's work in Reading/Language Arts, Science and Social Studies is modified for him. He works on grade level in math. He is pushed to work up to his full potential, and gets good grades. He has made "proficient" on all the state testing this year.

I also have a daughter who is in the enrichment program. She works her butt off with tons of homework and extra work every day. She makes great grades. Her test scores, while proficient, are not what you'd expect. She gets so nervous before state testing, she is literally in tears every morning that she has them.

My oldest son is smart, but not that motivated. His grades are passing, but not spectacular. He tests off the charts.

I do not believe that the current tests are accurate to what the kids are capable of. Nor do I think that their grades are an indication that they won't test well. My kids are all over the place with the whole thing.

I would be interested in learning more about the kind of testing you mentioned. Perhaps that would be a better indicator of what's really going on with the kid's grades vs test scores and actual ability.

I hate that everything seems to press teachers to teach to the test these days. My youngest had a ton of time devoted to how to fill out bubbles on the tests. If the teachers could actually teach what kids need to learn, instead of teaching them how to take a test, I'm sure not only would everyone be happier, the kids would actually have some real skills.

I'm not even sure how much the bad test scores really even reflect the teachers. They are being force to rush through information so that the kid will have even a small introduction to information before the test happens. The kids are being rushed through, the teachers are being rushed, the classes are overcrowded and kids who need a little extra help to "get it" are being passed by.

I'm not sure what the answers are here, or who is ultimately to blame.

I do know that I HATE state testing.

Aberdeener said...

"Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."
- Winston Churchill

I feel the same way about standardized tests.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Aberdeener, Thank you, Thank you, Thank You! Finally someone to explain it to all the parents who are falsely lead to believe their children are getting a good education in this district.

Do you have any idea how many children recieve the honor roll or merit roll award in this district. You would think that at least 50%-70% of our children would be achieving advanced proficient on these test.

These test are one thing and one thing only. A refelection on the district, on the teachers and on the curriculum. And that is the way it should be! These scores indicate that something is broken in this district's education system , and that is what needs to be addressed, adjusted and fixed.

As you put it, the bar needs to be raised across the board, for ALL students, not just those in the honors class. Also, teachers and administrators need to be held accountable. The vast majority of the kids in this district, the ones in "regular classes", the ones in the middle, are getting the short end of the stick. So many of these children could be pushed to achieve higher, but it is not done. And of course the parents don't realize it, because their child recieves merit or honor roll. And comes home with a report card of "A's" and "B's" What they don't see is, the content of what their child is taught is so low.

As you said, the coaches push the athletes to always achieve higher, why doesn't the same apply to academics, and to EVERY child? Then the children can honestly feel a pride in their achievement.

The way things are now, we are setting these children up for disappointment, and failure. They are going to have to compete with others outside of Aberdeen and Matawan when it comes to college or jobs. Are we going to wait until then, and tell our kids it's their problem?

I think parents would be outraged, if they realized the content was so vastly behind other districts.

Also the way the material is taught is so dry and boring. Any parent, or educator could tell you, when a child in engaged in actively learning, they do much better. Why aren't we addressing that? I'm no expert, but I don't think that is achieved by simply sticking a computer in the classroom either.

I'm ALL FOR "NO Child Left Behind", because is seems, that ONLY when we're at the risk of losing financial funding from the government, is anyone going to take notice. And hopefully do something about it!

Everyone's house is being reassessed this year, or already has been, and many might be paying more in taxes, would you care then?

These test are NOT a refelection of our children, they ARE a reflection of this school district! And we better do something about it.

We should NEVER teach to the test, we should be teaching strong academics and the kids would do fine. And the district wouldn't have to worry about losing money from government.

One parent who is already outraged.

Anonymous said...

I attended the mathematics Association of America New Jersey section meeting on April 12. One of the speakers, Alan Tucker, gave a presentation titled "Why Standards-Based State Mathematics Tests are Destined to Fail". This was a real eye-opener and you can read about it here: .

I also took a look at the example science test provided on your link (by the way, the science and math test file names are swapped). I have to agree with Dan Agin, author of "Junk Science", that the current focus in America of having students learn a set of scientific facts is not the way to go. Most students will never use this material past the Standards Exam. Instead what should be emphasized is how to judge the integrity of a scientific study and what the news media and special interest present as science "fact". Thinking citizens need to be able to sort good science from junk science in order to make sound political, economic and health decisions. For instance, if our population was equipped to recognize the hired gun "scientists" of the oil industry for what they are, we would be much farther along the road toward energy sustainability and the fight against global warming.

--Paul Rinear

Aberdeener said...


Thanx for sharing the article and pointing out the links got swapped. Looks like my ftp client had a glitch. It's been fixed and checked.

Thx again.

Anonymous said...

here we go again. blame the teachers and administration. When do parents of these students ever get a share of the blame. Aberdeener, i actually like to read your blog about things gone wrong. But your constant hammering of the school system is just not totally fair.

First of all, to listen to anything Honnick has to say is your first mistake. She does not "know" this town, just gets paid by it. Many in this area, do not know or don't want to admit that this nice little area has parts of it that do not match up with the Colts Necks or Holmdels. MANY in these 2 towns cannot afford prep classes, tutors, or SPEND TIME WITH THEIR CHILDREN/STUDENTS. Some do not have time or choose not to.

And if you knew anything about the school system to which you lay so much blame, you would know that THE STATE OF NJ and FEDERAL GOVERNMENT mandate that you teach to each student's ability. Every student cannot do the same work as the kid sitting next to them. Let us not forget that as little as 15 yrs ago, some of these students would not be in college prep classes. They would be learning other skills combined with the basics of curriculum to make them successful in the post high school world, but those programs are long gone(i.e. vo-tech)

Some students are beign forced to take classes and THEN ARE EXPECTED to achieve on STATE TESTS which are criticized yearly for their biases. I bet you do not know how many students fill out the test with designs in the circles, refuse to take them, or are actaully learning the material in classes at the same time these tests are being given, or maybe in the coming months.

So let us stop pretending to be who we want to be, and failrly look at outselves in the mirror. Let some of us stop blaming the schools and take a long look at ourselves are ask are WE ALL ARE DOING THE BEST we can by our student/children. It time to become parents to our children again, not be their best friends. But this is a story for another day.

Aberdeener said...


I agree parents are first and foremost responsible for their children's education.

So, let's talk about that. How do we shift responsibility back onto the parents for their children's education?

I have some ideas but none that I'd entrust to government or that don't involve charter schools. Do you?

Anonymous said...

Silence is golden. I agree with two things, Honnick doesn't have a clue and that will prove out,and parent involvemnet is essential. But that does not let teachers, adminstration, and board of ed off the hook. Our schools are failing our children. Our district should not remain complacent about how it staffs and compensates teachers. This "new" contract preserves archaic employment rules that have nothing to do with serving our children. It is loaded with provisions that do not promote education. It does nothing for good teachers, protects bad, raises costs and ties principles hands. Thanks board for nothing.

Anonymous said...

Yes, teachers and administrators are a big part of the problem; along with long sitting BOE members that only MAKE EXCUSES instead of doing thier elected jobs and improving education.

I'm a very concerned parent and I've been asking for more challenging work for the students for years.
Here are just some of the responses I've received from teachers, assistant principals, principals and BOE members.

"It's the curriculum, I can't teach above it"

"As teachers we're told to teach to the slowest child"

"Homework is only checked for effort, NOT content"

"I only correct math problems assigned for homework when children raise thier hand and say they had difficulty with a specific problem" Has anyone seen this district's math scores? Could a child not realize they don't understand it completely?

"Children need 8 hours of play daily"

"We don't like homework in this town"

"That's if you only care about academics"

"If I assign to the class to make corrections on their test, I'd have to check it"

"The material is a mile wide and an inch deep"

"I don't insist children take notes"

"It's because of contractual reasons"

And to the commentor above who said "many children are being forced to take classes...", Yes they are, that's because they're minors and we're the parents. It's our job as parents to educate our children. It's our job as adults to care about all the children receiving a decent education.
Many parents do care, this school district is doing a disservice to the children!

Anonymous said...

Holy cow! That list of excuses from teachers, principals and BOE members right her in Aberdeen reads like a set of indictment counts! How could any teacher say just one of these things, not to mention all of them! I'm very scared for my kids education here. How pathetic.

--Jerry R.
Cliffwood Beach