A task force appointed by the New York State education commissioner, John King Jr., is to report next month on ways to improve the integrity of the state’s educational testing system. New York has thus far escaped cheating scandals like the one that exploded in Atlanta. But troubling new developments have shown weaknesses in New York’s testing system that need to be fixed.
The annual standardized tests given in the lower grades and the Regents examination that high school students must pass to graduate now play a crucial role in decisions about how schools are rated and how principals are evaluated. In the future, teachers will also be judged, in part, on how students perform on state tests.
With the tests counting for more, attempts to tamper with them will most likely grow. The state recognized that problem this year when it ended the practice of having schools rescore the Regents exams of students who fell just below the passing level. The intent was to make sure that students weren’t failed by mistake. But an analysis by The Times showed that lots of students were getting the minimum score needed to pass, which suggested cheating. The state has ended rescoring by schools, but it permits superintendants to correct errors.
That change does not cure the far bigger problem. The Regents exams are typically scored in the same school where they are given, often by a student’s own teacher. The state Education Department has allowed this practice to go on because the exams are given very late in the academic year — often just days before graduation — so that it is convenient to have the schools grade the tests. The threat to the integrity of the results is obvious.
For the Regents to be taken seriously, this practice must end. The state needs to find a way to have the exams scored by a neutral party.
This could be accomplished by administering tests online or scanning them into computers and having them graded elsewhere.
Scoring of tests for the lower grades varies from district to district. In New York City, they are administered at the schools and sent to regulated, neutral sites for grading. But this is an expensive procedure that costs the city between $20 million and $25 million a year.
If all districts are going to take this approach, the state should assume the costs. Similarly, if the state wants school systems to use inexpensive test validation procedures — like computerized erasure analysis to check for fraud — it must not foist the costs onto the already underfinanced schools. Even in the difficult fiscal climate, the state has to ensure that student test results are reliable.