Cut Scores — Making the Grade

Have you heard of the term “cut scores?” In a 2006 paper titled “A Primer on Setting Cut Scores on Tests of Educational Achievement,” the Educational Testing Service defines it as “selected points on the score scale of a test. The points are used to determine whether a particular test score is sufficient for some purpose.”

While it is appropriate to determine different achievement points, the process is inherently flawed. Which points are “selected?” This is a value judgment. In some states, education policy makers have lowered their cut scores to minimize the “failing” grades that schools and districts would otherwise receive from the new Common Core aligned assessment. Some states are raising their cut scores to show that the new standards and assessments are more rigorous. Does that indicate that the previous cut scores misled students and families about their previous success? Still other states are manipulating the “passing” score after students take the exam in order to preserve an artificial passing percentage so it closely matches previous years’ results. Cut scores also can be changed year-to-year. How can these results be used as an objective measure when the threshold is manipulated?

In an April 2014 Washington Post article, award-winning Principal Carol Burris of South Side High School in New York, explains the significant damage these subjective cut scores can have on students, teachers, and schools. Ms. Burris wrote,

“Among the more powerful tools is the “buzzsaw” — the Common Core tests’ cut scores — which classify and sort students by test performance.  These cut scores, sometimes designed to produce high rates of failure, create an urgency that undermines local control and forcefully imposes unproven reforms across states and the nation.”

Also remember that the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) has admitted that their Common Core test will not be validated by 2015, but the New Hampshire Department of Education will nonetheless mandate their use across the state. In their FAQ, the SBAC states that the assessment “is being refined to validate and make adjustments to the college- and career-ready standard after full-scale administration begins in 2014-15.”

Not only were New Hampshire students test-piloting these assessment in approximately 90 schools across the state in 2013-2014, the experiment will roll out on a grander scale next year. This is in direct conflict with NH state education law. Per RSA 193-c, assessments must be “valid,” “appropriate,” and “objectively scored.”

Because each state determines their own cut scores, the Common Core assessments will not be the apples-to-apples comparison it is supposed to provide. This is completely contrary to one of the primary justifications for implementing Common Core — the cross-state uniformity of standards. The drive to adopt Common Core State Standards has been one of uniformity as well as test-driven data and decision-making. When we realize that the assessments are not yet validated and the analysis of the scores are not objective, it begs the question why so many key decisions will be based upon a flawed foundation.

It is interesting to note that the Educational Testing Service concludes their study by saying,

“It is impossible to prove that a cut score is correct. Therefore, it is crucial to follow a process that is appropriate and defensible. Ultimately, cut scores are based on the opinions of a group of people. The best we can do is choose the people wisely, train them well in an appropriate method, give them relevant data, evaluate the results, and be willing to start over if the expected benefits of using the cut scores are outweighed by the negative consequences.”

New Hampshire students, teachers, and schools will be judged based upon these invalidated tests with subjective pass/fail thresholds. Teachers now have 20% of their evaluation based on their school’s scores. How many will be judged as failing because of “selected” cut scores?

Recently the National Education Association (NEA) called for the resignation of Mr. Arne Duncan, the US DOE Secretary, because of his support to evaluate teachers based on these high-stakes tests.

The state DOE will set New Hampshire’s cut scores this fall. Where will they set the bar for our students, teachers, and schools? What process will they use and how will they justify those thresholds? Will our kids be set up for failure, or will they be artificially boosted? How will our teachers, administrators and school boards be able to make meaningful decisions based on manipulated information?

We have a problem and it is our students, teachers, and schools that will bear the burden.