The Testing Mess
The fastest way to "improve" students' performance: Lower your standards.


Abrams shrugged off the experts’ warning, and scores on the 2009 state tests then reached astronomical levels. In many school districts, the number of students scoring above the proficiency bar was nearly 100 percent. It was even possible for test takers to reach the “basic” level by simply guessing on all the multiple-choice questions, while ignoring test items that required longer written answers. Not surprisingly, almost no students in the state scored below the basic level in 2009. I’ve called these results the “Lake Wobegon test scores,” after Garrison Keillor’s tales about a town where “all the children are above average.”

For Mayor Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, test inflation was the gift from Albany that kept on giving, and they found ways to build even higher monuments to their reputations as school reformers. The city offered school employees a variety of inducements, including cash payments, for pushing test scores up even farther. The Bloomberg administration didn’t bother to ask too many questions about how the deed was done. Principals received cash bonuses of up to $25,000, and thousands of teachers were offered smaller bonuses for improved test scores — a powerful incentive to inflate the results by any means necessary. Finally, the city provided a powerful additional tool — the “Predictive Assessment” — to help teachers get the scores up. This is essentially a test-prepping device disguised as a mini-test that students take once a year; it closely reflects the blueprint and structure of the state tests.

To believe that the rising state and city test results had any objective validity was, by 2009, to believe that education nirvana had arrived in the Empire State. The new commissioner of the Board of Regents, Merryl Tisch, made it clear that she didn’t believe it. Tisch suspected that state education officials, including outgoing education commissioner Richard Mills, were deliberately setting the cut scores low, leading to the big boost in test results in 2008 and 2009. She not only brought in the reform-minded David Steiner to succeed Mills, but leaned on the education department’s lethargic bureaucracy to provide comprehensive student test data to Koretz, one of the country’s leading testing experts. Koretz and his team of Harvard researchers will produce a long-range empirical study that promises to pinpoint the extent and source of the test inflation of the past few years.

Tisch and Steiner deserve the public’s praise for their courage in challenging some of the powerful political interests in education. One of the most important revelations produced by their recalculation of cut scores this year was debunking the claim made by Mayor Bloomberg that his reforms had led to a significant narrowing of the black–white achievement gap. Still, Tisch and Steiner have taken only the first small steps towards creating a fair and transparent assessment system. Such a system should encourage classroom teachers to teach a well-rounded curriculum and then test students on their mastery of its academic content. This is Tisch and Steiner’s long-term challenge. In the meantime, it would certainly help if they were able to hire a testing director with a national reputation and a commitment to assessment reform. It is dismaying to discover that David Abrams, the Albany bureaucrat who was squarely in the middle of the test-inflation scandals of the past few years, is still New York’s state testing director.

– Sol Stern is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of the Institute’s City Journal.