Are Math Teachers Really Better Than Social Studies Teachers? Everything Depends on the “Cut” Score

Teachers of social studies in New York State are worried. Standardized test scores will count for between 20% and 40% of their annual “Danielson” grade. Untenured teachers are apprehensive because districts are making it harder and harder to get tenure and are using Danielson and other assessment rubrics to make tenure decisions.

Usually, better teachers would have students with higher test scores. But that means putting logic into a system that isn’t logical; a system where tests aren’t sure to be accurate and where state officials change the reported test scores to gain political advantage, make the public happy and get federal Race to the Top money.

Their students’ scores on standardized state tests are higher for math teachers, especially Algebra teachers in the 9th grade, than for social studies teachers, especially global studies teachers. Does this mean that math teachers are better teachers? Let’s see.

On the integrated Algebra “Regents” test in August 2011, test results were weighted so that a student only needed to get 34 percent of the questions correct, or 30 of 87, to get 65 percent, which is a passing score. The state website shows a chart showing how low raw scores were turned into acceptable test grades. This meant that both the student and the student’s teacher passed. It didn’t mean the student knew Algebra; it just told them they gave.

On the Global History “Regents” test in August 2011, a student would need to get 36 out of 50 multiple-choice questions right, which is about 70%, plus about half credit on the short answer and essay questions to get the same passing grade of 65%. A student who did better on the essay might do worse on the short answer and multiple choice questions. If you have trouble with how New York State does the math, you should know that in Algebra, you only need to get a third of the questions right to pass, but in social studies, you need a 65 to get a 65.

Carol Burris and John Murphy, the principal and assistant principal of South Side High School in Rockville Centre, New York, carefully looked at the Algebra and English tests from June 2014 aligned with the New York State Common Core. On the Algebra tests, they found problems that were too hard and instructions that were hard to follow. This made the tests more of a vocabulary and jargon test than the ability to understand and solve math problems.

The reading passages on the English Language Arts test were nearly three times as long. This wasn’t meant to test how well students understood the material, but how long they could last on the test. Even though the trial was supposed to show what students know or don’t know, it seemed like it was made to fail English Language Learners and students with learning or patience problems.

Parents put a lot of pressure on the state, and the state was afraid of getting bad press if too many students did poorly on its new Common Core-aligned tests. So, the state decided to set “cut” or passing scores for these tests so that about the same number of students passed as on the old “regents” exams: 74% for Algebra and 77% for English. To do this, the “cut” score for the 84-question Algebra test was set at 30 correct answers. Even stranger was the English test score. In theory, a student who wrote good essays could pass the Common Core-aligned English test by getting only five points on the reading section, which is about 20 percent correct.

Without a weighted final score, Global History has the lowest passing rate of any high school test in New York State. In 2011, the number was only 56%. Social studies teachers need to learn that 30+65=30 and ask that the “cut” score on the global history regents be set so that 75 percent of students automatically pass.

A “PowerPoint” on the engage website of the New York State Board of Regents tries to explain to the public how its testing program works. Slide 2 shows “The Bottom Line: “During this time of change, the Board will consider the minimum scores needed to pass Common Core Regents Exams. For our students and teachers, these cut scores are just part of a rigorous and relevant course of study for the next eight years of the phase-in.”

The other 57 slides defend Common Core and high-stakes testing by saying that they help students get ready for college and work, but they never explain how Common Core or the new Algebra and English tests do this.

In reality, the most recent test results from New York State don’t tell us much about how well students and teachers are doing, and they have nothing to do with how hard the work is. We also don’t know what they say about getting ready for college and a job.

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