Test-score inflation can boost graduation rates but comes with consequences, Stanford study finds

April 13, 2016

By Edmund L. Andrews

New education research sheds light on how to spot and stop schools from manipulating test scores.
Six years ago, a team of educational researchers shocked New York state with clear statistical evidence of widespread manipulation of test scores on the high school exit exams, or Regents Examinations.

The analysis, which formed the basis for an investigative report in the Wall Street Journal and sparked major reforms by New York state, showed that test graders were artificially lifting the scores for 40 percent of the students who had fallen just short of passing.

Students who took the English exam, for example, were five times as likely to receive the minimum passing score of 65 than just one point lower. Students who took the history exam were 14 times as likely to get a 65 than a 64.

The original research team included Thomas S. Dee, now of Stanford Graduate School of Education; Brian A. Jacob at the University of Michigan; and Jonah Rockoff of Columbia University.

Now, Dee and his colleagues, which now include Will Dobbie of Princeton University, have updated the data and completed a deeper study that sheds important new light on the motivations and consequences of test-score manipulation. It also confirmed the dramatic success of reforms that the group proposed back in 2011.

Among their findings, published April 11 by the National Bureau of Economic Research:

*The urge to nudge scores upward had nothing to do with incentives and penalties, such as those under the No Child Left Behind law, that increase the pressure of schools to deliver better results. The patterns before and after No Child Left Behind were essentially the same.

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