Guessing C For Every Answer Is Now Enough To Pass The New York State Algebra Exam
My student, River, spent more time in the courtroom than the classroom last year. One Friday night in September, a drunk friend called and asked for a ride home from a party. River obliged. That’s a problem when you’re 14 years old. On his excellent adventure with his drunk friend, River drove over the landscaping of several local businesses and ended with his car in the woods caught in a web of maple sugaring lines. Things spiralled from there.
All of which is to say that River didn’t learn algebra last year.
I mean it: zero algebra was learned. He wasn’t even present in my classroom for most of three marking periods. At the end of the year, he asked me how he was supposed to pass the state test.
“No problem,” I said. “Just pick all Cs.”
“Try it. I bet it will work.”
Did I have special knowledge? No.
Or yes, if you count actually being able to do math. Apparently the whole “actually being able to do math” thing is special now. New York certainly doesn’t require it.
Now look, you’re probably saying Ed, come on, there must be something that you’re not telling me. There must be something you’re missing.
I get it. That’s what I would be thinking too, if I heard about this from another teacher. I’d think that if there really were state tests with college scholarships and graduation requirements on the line (not to mention the precious state data that NYSED reports to the federal DOE), and if you really could pass those state tests by checking all Cs, then there would have been an uproar.
I’d be thinking that someone would have reported on this already. The Wall Street Journal is in New York. The New York Post loves to skewer Albany. This is the type of crunchy data social issue that shows up on Marginal Revolution or Slow Boring or somewhere.
Nope. This is every bit as outrageous as it sounds, but no one is covering it.
I contacted those folks and tried to get them to run with the story. Do you think I want to be spending my summer break writing this up instead of eating watermelon out on the lake? But none of them responded other than “I’ll forward this to so-and-so.” Except for Tyler Cowen, who said, “Maybe a Medium piece?”
So here’s the Medium piece.
What are the New York State Regents Exams?
In New York, these exams are commonly called simply the Regents, as in, Did you study for the physics Regents last night?, and, That English Regents was easier than your mom.
The Regents are important. In math, for example, NYSED offers three Regents exams: Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II. You must pass at least one to graduate from a public high school.
Furthermore, in most schools, the Regents exam counts as a significant percentage of your final grade in a particular course. Surveys of science teachers on SUNY Oneonta’s listservs (people still use listservs!) report a common range of 10–15% of a student’s final average being comprised of his Regents score. I don’t know of a similar statewide survey for math teachers, but in my district and the ones I’m familiar with, math Regents exam scores also account for about 10–15% of a final grade.
The Regents themselves — NYSED’s ruling council — and their appointed commissioner have put out an official statement recommending against this policy.
“The Department does not require or recommend that schools use Regents Examination grades as part of the calculation of a student’s final average. It is up to local districts to decide whether to use Regents Examination grades in this manner.”
But whom are they kidding? If an exam doesn’t count for a grade, will a student study for it? Let me give you the official answer based on my decades of teaching: hell no. Especially not in June, when the pools are open and the blue raspberry Slushees are flowing and the summer jobs and camps are starting. Especially not after school has finished.
Oh, did I not mention that?
New York administers these exams a week or two after “regular” school is done. New York public high schools have this odd “last day of school” every year on a Friday, and then two days later, everyone just shows up again on Monday for Regents review classes. This is why the New York school year doesn’t effectively end until June 25th or so. This is dumb. There is a pattern here.
So to provide motivation, teachers end up making the Regents exam count for a large portion of a course’s final grade. If students were to fail Regents exams left and right, parents and school boards and superintendents and budget officers and many of the students themselves would be upset.
They’d be upset because the Regents exams matter.
They matter for scholarships and “free” college programs and what courses you can take at SUNY universities and university honors programs and — and do not underestimate how highly parents and students value this — which cords a high school graduate wears around her neck at graduation.
The state exam scores also matter to school districts because a school with terrible test scores will be under NYSED’s spotlight — they call it a “focus” school — and come in for mountains of additional paperwork, meetings, and ultimately a humiliating loss of local control. NYSED also prides itself on “data-driven” decisions about what research to pursue, what grants to award, and what programs to fix or update or terminate. Care to guess what data is in the driver’s seat in that data-driven car? You guessed it, test scores. Picture Toonces the Driving Cat, except Toonces is named Test Scores.
The bottom line is that because the Regents exams are important, NYSED is very careful to produce high quality tests that challenge the students and accurately measure and report student progress.
Ha, just kidding. That cat is driving you right off a cliff.
The NYS Regents Algebra Exams
Here is the NYSED Regents Examination in Algebra One page for those who want to follow along at home. I’ll be pasting in screenshots as we go.
Let’s look at tests from the previous few years first. Ah, there they are, the warning signs.
This is the score conversion chart from the June 2018 Algebra One Regents exam. The minimum passing grade is a scaled score of 65. What you can see from this chart is that in order to get a scaled score of 65, a student needs a raw score of 26.
Out of 86.
Well. That’s a warning sign, all right. 30% required to pass the big year-end final? Seems way too easy. I’ll mention now that it’s the same for the Geometry and Algebra 2 tests over the past several years, only 30% is needed to pass.
Still. Maybe the test is difficult. I can imagine a test where 30% merits a pass. It’s probably not a great test, but I can imagine it. Let’s look at this test and see if passing with 30% is reasonable.
So there are 24 multiple choice questions worth 2 points on your raw score each. A total possible of 48 points. And then the constructed response section.
13 more questions, 8 worth 2 points, 4 worth 4 points, and one worth 6 points. Total of 38 points. Together with the first section, that’s 48+38 = 86 points possible in your raw score.
So far so good. Let’s look at the problems.
Yeah. This is not a hard test.
NYSED should be ashamed of requiring algebra students to score only 30% to pass a test this easy. It’s stuffed with know-the-definition, yes-or-no questions and reading comprehension questions without any algebra required. Other questions require nothing more than copying a graph from a calculator, and yes, graphing calculators are not just allowed, but required (check the bolded and boxed text on page 1).
But hold on, Ed, you’re saying. You still can’t pass this with all Cs!
True. This is the 2018 test. If you answered all Cs on this and left the constructed response section blank, you’d score 14 points, a dozen short of passing. That’s embarrassing enough, honestly, and NYSED should be ashamed at how easy those other 14 points are to achieve (partly because they’re awfully close to repeating the same questions every year, as they do on the Earth Science test, and no I am not making that up about the Earth Science test — but that’s another essay), but the truth remains that guessing all Cs wouldn’t let you pass the 2018 test. Not quite.
I suppose that explains why I was never outraged enough back in the good old days to write this piece. Outraged, yes, but it takes a special kind of outrage to make me put down the watermelon and write a Medium essay.
Then 2022 came along and asked 2018 to hold its beer.
Off the Cliff
If the circa 2010s grading scales were the warning signs, then this letter was the orange and white striped barricade across the road.
This letter is saying that, at least for 2022 and 2023, students only need a 50% scaled score to pass the Regents exam instead of a 65% scaled score. Don’t be fooled by the “special appeal” language. This is not an appeal in any meaningful sense of the word. Every appeal is approved. Every single kid with a 50% scaled score will be passed; the principals and teachers were dancing in the hallways when this letter came out. “Our passing rates will be so high!”
So let’s look at the raw-to-scaled conversion chart for 2022.
Aside from trying to distract us with shiny colored spreadsheet cells, NYSED hasn’t changed anything from 2018. Only now, instead of a 65% scaled score, you need a 50%. That is, instead of a raw score of 26/86 or 30.3%, you need 17/86, or 19.8%, to pass this test. This is how I knew to tell River what to do.
How hard are those 17 points to get?
A cat driving a car could get those 17 points. C for cat. C is choice 3 in the scoring key column here.
Answer all Cs, you get 9 right. Each one is worth two points. That’s 18 points, enough to pass.
More than enough to pass, in fact.
I really didn’t know what to say when I first saw this. I suppose I was thinking like Chuck Heston. “They finally, really did it.” This is jaw-dropping malfeasance. I wouldn’t believe that anyone who claims to care about kids could let this happen — not until I saw it happen.
Shame on NYSED and the Regents.
The statistically astute reader (and let’s be honest, that’s all of you who are still reading) will object that River got a little lucky. There were 9 “C” answers but with four choices in 24 questions you really should only expect to get 6 “C” answers.
To which I say: let me tell you what happened with River. You may have guessed that I’m fond of River. Kid has the best mullet since Joe Dirt. He lives in the trailer park with his dad and his brother in a single-wide, and together they coordinate our annual ice-fishing tournament, which is a big deal around here. But darned if I wasn’t really upset with him after this year’s Regents exam.
That’s because River didn’t quite answer all Cs. No. He took it upon himself to deviate from my carefully devised strategy on two problems, for reasons that involved NOTHING GOOD, RIVER, SERIOUSLY WTH. Anyway, of course, both of the two problems where River answered B were actually C.
Then how did River still pass, missing those two?
Because of the constructed response problems. This juicy 4-pointer is a great example.
That is not an algebra problem. It is a four-point gift from the Regents wrapped in graph paper.
And by gift, I mean a pedagogical embarrassment that should leave NYSED and the Regents’ credibility crashed and burning at the bottom of the cliff they’ve chosen to drive off.
Where do we go from here?
This problem has a clear solution: make the algebra exam an exam that actually tests a student’s ability to do algebra.
Unfortunately, this solution is difficult to implement. Implementation is difficult because of all the reasons that drove NYSED off the cliffs of insanity in the first place. Look at the incentives. NYSED and local school districts have large financial incentives to graduate as many students as possible. These incentives were put in place by both federal and state legislators who meant well and were trying to encourage good public school performance (good performance == graduation, of course, in their eyes). Teachers and principals have large quality-of-life incentives to pass students. Failing students brings scrutiny, parent and student complaints, superintendent pressure, guidance counselor inquisitions, paperwork, and meeting after meeting. It’s much easier to pass everyone.
But what good is a school system where students pass while learning nothing? What good is a test that says a student knows algebra when all he really knows how to do is guess all Cs?
The way forward is to reverse the incentives. NYSED ought to be shamed. It ought to be mocked for failing in its duty to provide an education. NYSED ought to be made to pay a price for its failure.
I don’t think that reversing the financial incentives is realistically possible in the short or medium term. It would be great if River could sue NYSED for passing him when he knows no algebra, even better if he could spearhead a class-action suit that brought together an army of fellow kids who have been wronged by the system. They deserve tobacco settlement-type money, Epic vs. Apple-type money. But that’s not going to happen.
Fortunately, there are other incentives. Prestige is one. Never underestimate the importance of prestige to academics! And wouldn’t NYSED suffer a huge loss in prestige if people found out that it was letting students pass its tests by guessing all Cs?
I have to hope that it would.