This is a terrific article about the Common Core test results. It explains in layman’s language how the test scores are calculated and converted to scale scores.

When you read the “results” in the newspaper or get the results for your child or your class, you need to understand that the “scores” are not really scores:

The only things that have been released are percentages of students who supposedly meet “proficiency” levels. Those are not test scores—certainly not what parents would understand as scores. They are entirely subjective measurements.

Here’s why. When a child takes a standardized test, his or her results are turned into a “raw score,” that is, the actual number of questions answered correctly, or when an answer is worth more than one point, the actual number of points the child received. That is the only real objective “score,” and yet, Common Core raw scores have not been released.

Raw scores are adjusted—in an ideal world to account for the difficulty of questions from year to year—and converted to “scale scores.” A good way to understand those is to think of the SAT. When we say a college applicant scored a 600 on the math portion of the SAT test, we do not mean he or she got 600 answers right, we mean the raw scores were run through a formula that created a scale score—and that formula may change depending on which version of the SAT was taken. Standardized test administrators rarely publicize scale scores and the Common Core administrators have not.

Then the test administrators decide on “cut scores,” that is, the numerical levels of scale scores where a student is declared to be basic, proficient or advanced

The cut scores are the passing marks. They are arbitrary and subjective decisions made by fallible human beings. They can raise the passing mark to create large numbers of “failures,” or they can lower the passing mark to create a “success” story, to celebrate their wonderful policies. In some cases, the cut score is set high, so many students “fail.” The next year, or year after, the cut scores are lowered, and HOORAY! Our Wise Leadership Has Created Success!

As Horn writes:

Now, when a news story says that proficiency percentages were “higher than expected,” you should know what was “expected.” The Common Core consortiums gave the strong impression that they would align their levels of “proficiency” with the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) nationwide standardized test. (That is, by the way, an absurdly high standard. Diane Ravitch explains that on the NAEP, “Proficient is akin to a solid A.”)

Score setting is a subjective decision, implemented by adjusting the scale and/or cut scores. If proficiency percentages are “higher than expected,” it simply means the consortium deliberately set the scores for proficiency to make results look better than the NAEP’s. And that is all it means.

It is no different from what many states did to standardized test results in anticipation of the Common Core exams. New York intentionally lowered and subsequently increased statewide results on its standardized tests. Florida lowered passing scores on its assessment so fewer children and schools would be declared failures. The District of Columbia lowered cut scores so more students would appear to have done well. Other states did the same.

The bottom line is this: The 2015 Common Core tests simply did not and cannot measure if students did better or worse. The “Smarter Balanced” consortium (with its corporate partner McGraw-Hill), the only one to release results so far, decided to make them look better than the NAEP, but worse than prior standardized tests. The PARCC consortium (with corporate partner Pearson) is now likely to do the same. It’s fair to say the results are rigged, or as the Washington Post more gently has put it, “proficiency rates…are as much a product of policymakers’ decisions as they are of student performance.”

You MUST MUST MUST MUST open the link to the cut scores announced by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, which Horn helpfully supplies. Scroll down to pp. 5-6. You will see that the cut scores predict that most students will “fail” in every grade. Only the top two levels are considered “passing,” that is, proficiency and advanced. In third grade math, 61% are predicted to “fail.” In fifth grade math, 67% are predicted to “fail.” In eighth grade math, 68% are predicted to “fail.”

The ELA predicted failure rates are slightly better, but even there, the majority of students are expected to “fail” because the cut score was so high.

If they chose different cut scores, the proportion passing or failing would be different, higher or lower.

This is not unique to the Common Core tests. This is the way all standardized testing is graded.

You can see how easy it is for political figures to manipulate the passing rates to their advantage.