Annals of Lying to Children

by Robert Pondiscio
June 7th, 2010

“I think we are lying to children and families when we tell children that they are meeting standards and, in fact, they are woefully unprepared to be successful in high school and have almost no chance of going to a good university and being successful”  — Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan

Students taking New York State math tests earned partial credit for wrong answers while some “got credit for no answer at all,” reports the New York Post, which has several examples of generous partial credit given for wrong answers from a scoring guide it obtained for the state’s most recent 4th grade math test:

  • A kid who answers that a 2-foot-long skateboard is 48 inches long gets half-credit for adding 24 and 24 instead of the correct 12 plus 12.
  • A miscalculation that 28 divided by 14 equals 4 instead of 2 is “partially correct” if the student uses the right method to verify the wrong answer.
  • Setting up a division problem to find one-fifth of $400, but not solving the problem — and leaving the answer blank — gets half-credit.
  • A kid who subtracts 57 cents from three quarters for the right change and comes up with 15 cents instead of 18 cents still gets half-credit.
  • A student who figures the numbers of books in 35 boxes of 10 gets half-credit despite messed-up multiplication that yields the wrong answer, 150 instead of 350.

The “holistic rubrics,” according to the paper, give points “if a kid’s attempt at an answer reflects a ‘partial understanding’ of the math concept, ‘addresses some element of the task correctly,’ or uses the ‘appropriate process.’ to arrive at a wrong solution.”

Teachers will almost certainly agree that there is much merit in partial credit for partial understanding.  The question is how much.  The Post quotes a Brooklyn teacher who says of the grading rubric, “You feel like you’re being forced to cheat.”  A New York State Ed Department spokesperson defends the rubric, but it’s hard to imagine recently appointed chairman David Steiner being pleased with it.  As Sol Stern reported recently, Steiner and the chancellor of the Board of Regents, Merryl Tisch, have brought in assessment expert Daniel Koretz to conduct an independent audit of state reading and math tests.  Critics have levelled numerous charges of dumbed-down tests and lowered cut scores.

The most serious disservice resulting from such clear and obvious grade inflation is the misimpression it creates among the most vulnerable students and parents.  Families who are not critical consumers of education–who may not be well-educated themselves but have ambitions for their children–reasonably assume that “on grade level” means, well, on grade level and that their child is on track to graduate from high school and go to college.  Creating such a misimpression is unforgivable.


  1. I think we adults are lying to ourselves if we think we can fix this problem without something like externally-administered end-of-course exams with teeth from fourth grade onward. If a kid fails fourth grade math utterly, he should go to summer math boot camp or repeat the grade. This will a. motivate slacker/disruptor kids to try harder, b. nip the problem in the bud, rather than letting it erupt into a full-blown mess that middle- and high-school teachers must vainly attempt to clean up.

    We’re also lying to ourselves (and the kids) when we tell them that the language arts activities that fill their days are making them better readers and all-round smarter people. It’s a giant fraud that even Bill Gates cannot detect.

    Until we bite the bullet and decide to make schools about the hard work of real learning, we’ll continue to just have “happy” schools, or schools that produce the simulacra of learning (e.g. these inflated test results). Superintendents, ed professors, teachers who publish in English Journal –all are tragically adept at generating the appearance of real learning.

    Comment by Ben F — June 7, 2010 @ 10:23 am

  2. Totally agree Robert.

    I often wonder, though, what do we say to families at the admission lottery?

    Should we be as direct as to say “Hi folks: You basically have almost no statistical chance to ever get a college degree, unless you go to a school that’s 100x harder than your middle school”?

    Whose job is it to tell an actual kid? Anyone who comes into contact with that kid?

    Comment by MG — June 7, 2010 @ 12:23 pm

  3. @MG The truth will set you free. I had a disconcerting lunch a few weeks ago with a former student of mine, currently in 11th grade. Nice kid, unremarkable student, the kind who will almost certainly graduate on time next year with an average in the low 80s. She wants to be a veterinarian. She’s taking remedial algebra in 11th grade. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that her math skills are nowhere near where they need to be for her to have a serious shot at a career in the sciences. But this is a kid who has never been in serious danger of failing. She’s spent her life at or near grade level and has basically been told everything’s fine. If I get militant on dumbing down standards and assessments to create the illusion of progress, it’s because of kids like this. It’s a form of institutional fraud to tell kids they’re wheere they need to be without letting them know the reality of what it takes to reach what should be achievable ambitions.

    @BenF. The truth will set you free.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — June 7, 2010 @ 1:51 pm

  4. The problem is that we let kids think that if they can get into a 4-year college (which this kid no doubt can), all occupational choices are open to them. School guidance counselors really should identify, way ahead of time, the occupations that will require students to arrive in college with 4 years of rigorous math already accomplished. And for that matter, the ones that require other types of high-level achievement.

    Comment by JB — June 7, 2010 @ 2:19 pm

  5. Follow-up: for some kids, remedial Algebra and an average in the low ’80′s is “where they need to be.” Unless we seriously believe that all kids are above average, we should be thinking about what to say to those kids that is both encouraging and realistic. If pretty much all kids who graduate will be going on to some sort of post-secondary ed, we need to be much more specific about where their talents can take them.

    Comment by JB — June 7, 2010 @ 3:01 pm

  6. Robert, let me follow up a bit. We take full responsibility for that hard discussion with every single kid. Certainly what college readiness really means.

    I mean: what about the kids who lose our admission lottery or who I meet in other contexts? I have nothing to offer them, no alternative scenario that gives them a likely scenario that ends up in college readiness. Do I just burst their bubble?

    Comment by MG — June 7, 2010 @ 6:33 pm

  7. Ben F, Texas is trying to move in the direction of End of Course exams for their high school students instead of their high school exit exam. It does appear that the scope and sequence of the exams includes quite a bit of content (unlike most state standardized tests). And it also looks like the exam factors into grades (15%) and students need to pass the exam to get credit for the course.

    Comment by Erin Johnson — June 7, 2010 @ 9:25 pm

  8. I have no problem whatsoever with real, content-based, externally-administered end of grade tests, but this kind of serious approach to mastering the essentials of education should start in kindergarten. I’m not saying that standardized testing should start then, but remediation for kids struggling with reading and math should be immediate. I think the “not developmentally ready” label, until the kid is at least two years behind and then replacing it with “learning disability” is too often “not properly taught.” There are plenty of kids, especially but not exclusively at the lower-SES end, who require explicit instruction in phonics and math and they don’t always get it when it is really needed (and maybe not at all).

    Comment by momof4 — June 9, 2010 @ 8:41 am

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  10. There’s a recent article in the New York Times Magazine about the Dutch club Ajax’s famed youth soccer academy – if you google NYTmagazine/ajax, you’ll get the article. Our schools could learn from this program – every kid (as young as 7) knows that he may be asked to leave in the spring if he’s not improving as much as others or new recruits can take his spot. Serious travel sports teams here – and I’m sure music and performing arts groups – cut underperforming kids regularly or drop them from the top levels and the kids know it. Going through the motions is never enough and sometimes even working harder than seems possible won’t overcome a lack of the necessary talent beyond a certain point. This is what accounts for the drop-off in numbers as the kids age; some kids have stronger interest in other activities, some realize they aren’t competitive and can’t/don’t want to work hard enough to change that. Not everyone can make it to the NBA or to Carnegie Hall; why should we pretend that everyone can be physicians or lawyers or engineers?

    Unfortunately, our schools have their heads in the sand, pretending that all kids are equally able, hard-working,prepared for real college work, capable of doing anything/everything they want to and lying to those kids and parents about where they really are on the academic achievement spectrum. Meanwhile, hands get rung over dropout rates, even though some kids are not really capable of even real HS-level work. It takes a certain amount of courage to tell a kid and her parents that she just isn’t a realistic candidate for vet school, and suggest other careers working with animals that would be more congruent with their academic achievements. With a more realistic/pragmatic approach from the beginning of schooling (and better curriculum and instruction) more kids will have a real shot at higher levels. Also, for those who weren’t too motivated/diligent in HS, if they change later (after a dose of supporting themselves in the real world), community colleges can start them on their way to a university.

    Comment by momof4 — June 9, 2010 @ 6:18 pm

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