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Score Inflation

Score Inflation

17 May, 2016

  • Results when student scores on tests or other assessments increase but the increase does not show any genuine developments in learning.
  • Score inflation has been compared to holding a lit match to a thermometer in a cold room: while the thermometer reading indicates that the temperature is rising, the room remains cold.

Possible Reasons:

  1. The testing design or processes are flawed
  2. Educators are inadvertently or intentionally inflating student scores.

Issues associated with score inflation:

  1. Students seem to be improving academically when they’re not, and they may consequently not receive the additional instruction, attention, and academic supportthey need to improve and succeed
  2. Elected officials, policy makers, parents, and the public are given the misleading impression that schools are improving or performing adequately when in fact performance may be festering or even deteriorating.

How Scores are Inflated:

  1. Teachers may “teach to the test” by training students in test-preparation strategies and focusing narrowly on topics and questions. This happens if teachers are under pressure to enhance student scores on high-stakes tests because there is a risk that low scores will lead to sanctions, bad publicity, or withheld bonuses. There are cases wherein educators have even been caught cheating. For example, school administrators and teachers may gain access to test questions and review them in advance, they may display correct answers on a blackboard during the administration of a test, they may systematically change incorrect answers to the correct ones, or they may expel historically low-performing students before they can take a standardized test to increase overall school-performance scores.
  2. Test questions can be made easier. For example, a test administered in eleventh grade may reflect an eighth-grade learning level, or the performance level considered to be “passing” or “proficient” may be lowered to manufacture the perception that underperforming students are achieving at expected levels.
  3. Students can be given more time to complete tests, or they may receive some other form of “help” from adults during the testing period.
  4. Either on their own initiative or at the direction of administrators, teachers may provide intensive instruction and academic support to a smaller group of students who are deemed most likely to improve their scores enough meet expected benchmarks for improvement. If the intensively supported students improve from just below to just above the cutoff score for “proficiency” on a test, for example, it can help a school meet improvement expectations—at least technically—and avoid negative consequences, even though the learning needs of other students in the class may be neglected.

While score inflation is largely perceived as a negative phenomenon, some educators see little damage in assigning consequences to test results, and they may therefore be dismissive of score inflation, reasoning that, if the tests are well designed and they measure what students are expected learn, “teaching to the test” is a good thing—i.e., the practice is precisely what is needed, since it will help to ensure that students receive a high-quality education. In this case, test scores may not necessarily be considered “inflated” at all, since stronger test performance could be seen as “the goal” or as sufficient evidence that stronger learning improvement has been achieved.

Other educators may claim that high-stakes tests, and the resulting incentives to inflate scores, distort the basic purpose of education: rather than teaching students the most important knowledge and skills they will need in adult life, teachers are pressured to focus on test preparation and the more narrow range of knowledge and skills measured by tests. In this view, test preparation and success—as opposed to broader educational objectives, such as college and career preparation and success—are the implicit “goal” of education, and misleading test results may be widely accepted as sufficient evidence of success.