Many students passed Alaska's new high school exit exam because the passing score was lowered to account for the unreliability of tests, state figures show.
State education officials said they wanted to be confident they didn't fail students who knew the material, which could invite lawsuits. But critics said the state dumbed down the test for political reasons -- so parents wouldn't turn against state academic standards.
"To me it seems like it's dumbing down to make it politically palatable," said Juneau School Board member Alan Schorr.
Students must pass the three-part test in reading, writing and math to get a high school diploma. About 8,200 sophomores took the test in March, the first time it has been given. Those who fail a section can retake it several times in high school and for three years afterward.
Three committees of citizens, mostly teachers, met in Anchorage this summer to set a recommended cutoff point for the passing grade, called a cut score, for each section of the test.
But the state, following the recommendation of its testing contractor, CTB/McGraw-Hill of Monterey, Calif., lowered those cut scores before announcing student results in June. Under the lower cut scores, 75 percent of students passed the reading test, compared with 48 percent under the reading committee's cut score.
In writing, the percentage of passing students increased to 48 percent from 16 percent. In math, it went up to 33 percent from 15 percent.
The state Department of Education has recommended the state Board of Education adopt the lower cut scores by regulation when it meets in Anchorage next week. Board member Ernie Hall, an Anchorage furniture manufacturer, said everything will be on the table at those deliberations.
Richard Smiley, administrator for assessments at the state Department of Education, said the lower cut scores were derived in a standard mathematical way from the committees' cut scores, which weren't influenced by politics. The committees didn't know how many students would pass the tests under any given cut score.
Adjusting the cut scores to include standard error of measurement, which is a common practice, passes students who have mastered the material but had a bad day on test day, Smiley said. It also accounts for imperfections in the tests.
The basic issue is fairness, he said.
"We want to make sure that we're not denying a diploma to anyone that deserves one," Smiley said.
"States have ended up in courts over these kinds of things. Applying the standard error of measurement makes the tests much more defensible. We can stand up in court anywhere and say this test is fair," he said.
Richard Dobbs, vice president of marketing and sales at CTB/McGraw-Hill, said every published test includes standard error of measurement. It's similar to a poll that gives its results with a plus or minus spread to account for uncertainty in the figures' accuracy.
In Alaska's high school test, the lower cut score is the minus part of the spread derived from the committees' cut scores.
"What it's trying to accommodate is the fact that any one measurement is subject to the reliability of that measure," Dobbs said.
Critics said lower cut scores allow some students to pass who don't meet the standards.
Gregg Erickson and Rebecca Braun first reported the differences in passing rates in the July 28 edition of the Alaska Budget Report.
In an interview, Erickson said he thinks the state should consider politics in setting the initial cut scores and then ratchet up the passing grade over the years. It doesn't make sense to give unprepared students a high-stakes test, he said.
But Erickson said the state should recognize low passing rates under the citizen committees' cut scores are a wake-up call that the schools are in crisis.
The number of students who passed all three sections of the test at the committees' recommended cut score may be less than 10 percent, Erickson and Braun's report noted.
To state Board of Education member Sally Rue, a state employee in Juneau, the large number of students who passed the test under the lower cut scores shows how many were just on the cusp of passing at the committees' cut scores.
Including standard error of measurement doesn't alarm Mary Becker, a Juneau School Board member and retired teacher who served on the committee that set the initial reading cut score. She said she's willing to trust the education department's judgment.
The reading test was difficult, and the committee set a high cut score, higher than some committee members wanted, Becker said. Schools aren't limited to teaching to the level of competence represented by the cut score, she added.
State Board of Education member Paula Pawlowski, an Anchorage parent, said the board is concerned about the way the standard error of measurement looks to the public. But the department's explanation was logical, she said. She doesn't see how it could lead to passing a student who isn't proficient.