Deceptive scoring practices can be found in schools across the country, and they seem to be growing in popularity in an era that places heavy emphasis on standardized testing. But rarely do those practices involve the kind of cheating that happened in Atlanta, where teachers were caught erasing and changing students’ answers. Instead, they’re typically a lot more subtle—a teacher turning a blind eye to a few errors, for example, or grading an open-ended response leniently—and a lot less selfish. And it turns out that this kind of manipulation might even benefit kids.
One recent study, published earlier this month by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), looks at New York’s Regents Exams, the high-school tests in a handful of subjects that students are required to pass to graduate. Until 2010, teachers were responsible for grading their own students’ exams; they were also required to rescore any tests that fell just a few points below the proficiency threshold. These scoring policies, the economists found, enabled widespread manipulation: 40 percent of the scores near the cutoffs—or 6 percent of all the exams in core subjects—were inflated.
A similar analysis of students in Sweden, published by the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research in February, focused on the nationwide math exams administered among all ninth-graders to help determine their GPA and eligibility for high school. (High school in Sweden starts at grade 10.) As was the case with New York’s Regents Exams, the tests are graded locally by students’ own teachers, who at times had to award points based on subjective qualities like “clarity” and “beautiful expression.” True to form, the researchers found that a good deal of test-score inflation happens in the Scandinavian country as well.
The prevalence of test-score manipulation in the United States is well-documented. In fact, with the help of the same researchers who authored the Regents Exams study, The Wall Street Journal in 2011 revealed a significant spike in the number of exams in all the main subjects with scores of 65 points out of 100—the minimum passing grade. (The authors of the Sweden study based their conclusions on similar patterns.) The New York State Education Department quickly adopted a series of changes to grading policies, and by 2012, evidence of manipulation had all but disappeared. What hasn’t been well-documented are the causes and consequences of such manipulation.
There’s good evidence that score manipulation does harm kids, particularly when teachers are falsifying their responses outright for the sake of avoiding sanctions. But there’s also good evidence to suggest that score inflation—teachers grading a bit more leniently, often because they think the student underperformed on the exam—may have positive effects as well. While inflating an individual student’s test score doesn’t magically inject her with more knowledge, the two aforementioned studies indicate it significantly boosts her odds of overcoming an obstacle increasingly critical to future success: high-school graduation. In New York, according to the NBER authors, having a Regents score manipulated to fall above a cutoff increased the probability of graduating by a hefty 22 percentage points. And because black students were more likely than their white peers to have scores just below the cutoff—and because the score inflation was more common at schools with high concentrations of low-income students of color—the manipulation actually shaved 5 percentage points off the gap between white and black students’ graduation rates. Once the state changed its scoring policies, roughly a quarter of just-below-the-cutoff students weren’t able to pass their exams even after retaking them and thus couldn’t graduate.