Long have I argued that our testing regime has a split personality; until it decides what it wants to be it will be unsuccessful at the various things it is asked to do. Goals for our tests range from determining who is ready for college to how good is your teacher to raising the bar so that students will perform better to increasing our graduation rates. Is the test a higher bar that we want our students to strive to achieve or a minimum standard they should all pass?
With this viewpoint I have been amused by the conundrum presented to the New York State Department of Education as reported in the New York Times and an Ed Week blog. They issued requirements for students to pass algebra with a higher grade than previously required (a 74 instead of a 65). Then they switched to the Common Core versions of our state tests, which, many argue, are harder. Many students needed to attempt the earlier algebra test 4 or 5 times in order to achieve a passing grade. When we raise the minimum grade, what will happen to them then. To compound the difficulty, in New York we further have a "safety net" for students with disabilities. These students can pass the exam with a 55. We have not figured out how evolving pass scores will impact the "safety net."
Further muddying the water is the question of whether requiring algebra for all students is a good goal. After all, how many of us spend time solving systems of equations, graphing linear equations, factoring quadratic equations, solving logic proofs or figuring out the number of possible ice cream cone combinations are possible at an ice cream shop that has 25 flavors, 4 sauces, 6 toppings, and several fruit options. I believe that a rigorous algebra course can help students learn to think logically, but only if it is rigorous rather than dumbed down. There are also other ways to teach logical thinking.
So what do we want our tests to measure? Let's design our tests to do that and make policy around that goal, not the plethora of goals we currently observe but accomplish poorly. We need to decide- Are we going to reduce the number of remedial classes students take in math by increasing the cut score or are we going to raise the graduation rate? Is the test a bar all must jump over to get to the other side (i.e. graduation) or a litmus test for remedial math in college? Lets get our assessments some therapy and make a choice.