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Only in America: 33 Percent Is a "Passing" Grade in Math!

More students are failing even while standards are being lowered.

A recent headline in the New York Post proclaimed “Regents math test is easier to pass-thanks to low standards.”1 The Regents Common Core exam is given to eighth graders to examine whether they are on track to graduate from high school with acceptable skills in subjects such as math. The details in the article are nothing short of shocking: In order to “pass,” students need only earn 27 out of a possible 86 points. My own math indicates a score of 31.40% (27/86 x 100) is now considered “acceptable” performance in the New York school system! When I was in eighth grade nearly 5 decades ago, there was no way that getting less than one third of the points on a test was anything other than a failing grade.

But it gets worse. The article also noted that even with lower standards, more and more students are failing. Dr. Aaron Pallas, Chair of the Department of Education Policy and Social Analysis at Columbia University argued that “Kids should be doing better,” he said. “It should require a higher score to be proficient, but that’s not yet what we’re seeing." "It’s going the other way, which is puzzling.”2 The article in the New York Post also reported that Professor Pallas indicated that setting standards is ultimately a political decision, so perhaps this isn’t so puzzling after all. Students, parents—and the taxpayers who are providing more money per student than almost every other country in the world3—deserve honest measures of what children in the school system are learning and how much they know. Rigging the system so that low scores—and low knowledge levels are now described as “passing” is deception if not outright fraud.

Of course, the real victims of this educational malpractice are the students themselves, who are told they have acceptable math knowledge when in fact they do not. At some point, be it in high school or in college or on the job (if they can get one despite being poorly educated), the absence of “real” skills in math and other subjects will become apparent. After all, the students will eventually be competing with people who actually know math and were not told that a score of less than 32% is “passing.”

The Post article continues with: “Meanwhile, the number of students who failed eighth-grade state math exams has tripled from 14,000 in 2012 to 44,483 since Common Core exams in grades 3 to 8 were introduced.”4 This means that even with easier standards and setting abysmally low criteria for “passing” such as 31.40%, more and more students cannot even meet these low standards!

Because Common Core was designed to improve performance and to standardize teaching techniques, it is noteworthy that the opposite seems to be occurring. In my book, "The Intuitive Parent," from Current/Random House/Penguin 5 I talk about a fundamental problem with Common Core standards. Key educational competencies are specified for each grade level and lessons are micromanaged so that teachers have less and less freedom to individualize lessons according to each student’s skill level. But, what are the consequences when a student does not meet a particular competency in math—or any other subject?

In all too many cases, the answer is nothing: the student is simply passed on to the next grade even though they haven’t achieved even the minimal competency that is crucial for learning at the next grade level. What good is a Common Core Curriculum, or a knowledge base in an important subject such as science or reading, or an eighth-grade math test, or any other educational scheme if no one is held accountable? Everyone “passes” regardless of how much they know or how well they do on a test—unless they fail miserably. And even then, the student is still likely to be passed on to the next grade. How in the world is an eighth-grade teacher supposed to teach grade level math when the students have never had to master the prerequisite skills needed to learn algebra and are performing far below grade level when they walk into the classroom? After all, these students’ math skills have been rated as “passing” even when they may have gotten less than 1/3 of the answers on the test!

David Rubel, a New York based educational consultant sounded the alarm when discussing the latest results of the eighth-grade math test “I think you have a storm warning, that’s a huge number of kids not on track to graduate.”6 One could argue that Mr. Rubel is actually underselling the magnitude of this crisis because it is not only that these children will not graduate on time or all, but that they will be ill-equipped to take advantage of educational and vocational opportunities in their future lives. This is truly a national tragedy and a horrible waste of human potential.

It is time to quit gaming the system by setting achievement standards artificially low, and to establish real accountability and honest consequences in education. If our society agrees that in order to pass eighth grade math—or any other subject—certain knowledge and skills are required, no student should be passed on to ninth grade until they have acquired this knowledge. And this should be implemented from Kindergarten onward. Grade level skills have to mean something and should be mastered at a much higher level than 31.40% in order to move on to the next grade. To be sure, being held back in math, or any other subject is painful and will likely provoke outrage from some parents and from students, but it is far better to ensure that our children are graduating with the knowledge and skills required for a productive adulthood in our ever more complex society and in the ever more competitive global marketplace. Even more importantly, students, parents—and taxpayers—should be told the truth regarding what is being taught and how well it is being learned.

5. Camarata, S. (2017). The intuitive parent: Why the best thing for your child is you. New York: Penguin/Random House/Current. Paperback edition.


Camarata, S. (2017). The intuitive parent: Why the best thing for your child is you. New York: Penguin/Random House/Current. Paperback edition.