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My View: Math exam grading just doesn't add up

By Donna Steffan

The New York State Board of Regents has done it again. They seem to be setting the bar lower each year. I'm speaking of the scaled grading of the algebra I exam administered in June.

Back when I was teaching full-time, the Regents exam in algebra I (and geometry and algebra II — trigonometry, for that matter) was worth 100 points. Whatever score a student earned out of that 100 was, obviously, his or her score.

These days, the exam is worth a total of 86 points. If a student answered every question correctly and earned that 86 points, the scaled score will be 100. A "raw" score of 85 is scaled to a 99, and 84 scaled to a 98. Where's the problem, you might ask. The problem is: This pattern does not continue.

Most school districts (and the Regents themselves) have set 65 as the passing grade, both for exams and quarterly reports. Picture "Johnny," who has struggled all school year and is barely passing. Perhaps Johnny doesn't do his homework, is absent frequently, and spends most of his class time on his cellphone. (Yes, a highly regarded Western New York school district allows all students to have their phones all day. Try teaching under those conditions.)

Donna Steffan

Here comes Johnny's final exam in algebra I, and his scaled score is 78. His parents are outraged, furious with the terrible teacher who gave Johnny such a hard time all year. Johnny, meanwhile, is patting himself on the back for his good work, and is convinced that he is ready for the next level of math, geometry. (By the way, the geometry course is considerably more difficult than algebra I.) What Johnny and his parents don't know is that his scaled grade of 78 was really 44 points out of that possible 86. That translates to a 51 percent.

Seems that the classroom teacher was actually pretty generous.

When I was in high school, I loved math and hated history. If I managed to score an 80 on my history final exam, I was very happy. Perhaps "Susie" loves history and hates math. So when she sees an 80 as her final exam grade, she is happy too. She shouldn't be. Her 80 was actually a "raw" score of 50. Fifty out of 86 is really 58 percent.

What are these people on the Board of Regents thinking? Any current full-time teacher can answer that. They are congratulating themselves on the fact that so many of the students in New York State have passed a Regents math exam.

They need to wake up! A friend who is a math professor at an excellent Western New York college told me last year that the recent freshman classes are among the weakest he has ever seen.

Perhaps you're wondering what score was considered a "passing" grade. I've asked so many people from all different walks of life, "What do you think the passing grade was out of 86 points?"

Most guessed somewhere in the 54-56 range, since those scores would (supposedly) convert to barely 65 percent. Well, the "raw" score for June's algebra I exam to be given a passing grade of 65 percent was ... 26 points. Twenty-six out of 86 converts to 30 percent. How pathetic.

Donna Steffan is a retired math teacher, now working as a private tutor.

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