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.