Some Hillsborough students pass mid-term exams with fewer than half the correct answers

Published Feb. 5, 2012

TAMPA — Should your kid get a C on his Algebra 2 Honors midterm exam with more than half the answers wrong?

Sure, says the Hillsborough County School District.

That's ridiculous, says a math teacher at Wharton High School.

"We all are doing these kids a gross disservice," said Maxine Stark, a veteran teacher who's convinced that some of the grades on the report cards issued Friday were too generous.

"What you're telling them is that they've gotten grades that they haven't earned," she said. "They're leading themselves to a false sense of security and they don't know the material."

High school algebra, advanced topics and honors economics students all received raw scores on their districtwide standardized mid-terms that suggested many struggled with either the tests or the content.

But while teachers such as Stark complain that students are being handed grades that do not reflect their true proficiency, the district's head of assessment, Sam Whitten, said the tests are not just about how hard Johnny studied. A big part of their purpose is to help the schools fine-tune their curriculum and teaching methods.

He cautioned against viewing the scores in percentages. "If we reported the SAT or the FCAT by percentages, people might be appalled," he said.

But when percentages are considered, a 60 percent on the honors economics midterm becomes a B grade. A 53 percent in advanced topics, a math class, earns a C.

So why would the district give exams that are so difficult?

It's not deliberate, Whitten said.

Educators write what they believe are suitable questions based on what students should have learned during a semester.

But until students take the test, they don't really know its fairness.

When the test is new or has been revised, officials compare the results to last year's scores. They also look at grades the teachers have already given students based on their class work, Whitten said.

Then, if those numbers are dramatically different, district officials make adjustments.

The result is that the scores generally match up, more or less, with grades that would be expected. When they are radically different, the teacher is likely an "outlier," Whitten said — an especially gifted teacher, a harsh grader or that one who simply gives everyone an A.

He used the term "scale," which adjusts grades to expected outcomes, rather than "curve" — something teachers commonly construct to compare students' scores to one another.

Districtwide exams did not always exist in Hillsborough. Until the 1980s, teachers were free to give whatever grades they chose and there was little consistency between schools, Whitten said.

That's still the case in many places.

"Most districts do not have any exam to regulate what is being taught in school," he said. "We are ahead of the game, and we're the envy of the state and many districts in the nation."

The high school mid-terms, which count for 25 percent of the report card grade, serve a variety of purposes, Whitten said.

They help curriculum supervisors identify concepts that are not being taught effectively. This information, when shared with schools, gives teachers a road map for improvement.

The exams also contribute data to numerous efforts in the district and state. These include Empowering Effective Teachers, Hillsborough's Gates-funded education reform program, which assesses teachers, in part, on how much progress their students have made.

The tricky part, Whitten said, is to gather data from the tests without punishing students for not knowing information they might not have been taught.

Handled properly, he said, "they provide a common measure at no risk to the students."

That's one way to look at it, said Stark, who has taught at public and private schools since 1970.

But she sees it as a sign that the district is letting students and teachers off the hook.

"I've had kids who have been appalled," she said. "I had a kid last year who was really upset about the grade, because he knows how hard some of these kids studied and he said it's not fair."

This year, she said, one student "Christmas-treed" his test with random answers and passed.

Another, who was barely passing before the exam, studied furiously and earned a 92 percent.

"You've got to provide motivation for these kids," she said. '"These kids have got to know that they have to study."

Experts in testing were reluctant to pass judgment without knowing more about Hillsborough's methods.

"There is always the motivation factor," said Suzanne Lane, a professor of research methodology at the University of Pittsburgh. But, she said, teachers generally can round out the report card grade with other assessments that are within their discretion.

In Hillsborough, teachers' union president Jean Clements acknowledged the dilemma.

If nobody could answer a particular question, she said, the problem likely lies with either the curriculum or the test.

"I do think kids need to be held accountable for learning," Clements said. "But to be fair to the kids, there has got to be an expectation of [others'] accountability for their learning as well."

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or