What does “proficient” mean? State tests used to measure student achievement are creating “a false impression of success, especially in reading and in the early grades,” concludes a Fordham study on The Proficiency Illusion. Expectations are low in the early grades, setting students up for failure in higher grades.
Although there has not been a “race to the bottom,” with the majority of states dramatically lowering standards under pressure from NCLB, the report did find a “walk to the middle,” as some states with high standards saw their expectations drop toward the middle of the pack.
Math tests tend to be more demanding, and tests for both reading and math get much harder to pass in eighth grade.
States’ definitions of “proficiency” vary wildly. Colorado, Wisconsin and Michigan have the lowest NCLB proficiency standards in reading; those three plus Illinois have the lowest math standards. California, Massachusetts and South Carolina have the highest standards in reading and math; Maine also is high in reading, New Mexico in math.
To measure whether fourth graders can distinguish fact from opinion, Wisconsin children answer a question about cats and dogs; Massachusetts children evaluate a reading passage by Tolstoy.
More students are passing state tests largely because the tests are easier to pass, the study concludes.
In fact, the report notes that the primary factor explaining increases — including over half of the reported gains in reading and nearly 70 percent of the reported gains in math — is a decline in cut scores on state tests.
In a New York Times op-ed, Diane Ravitch suggests the feds and the state should switch roles:
We will never know how well or poorly our students are doing until we have a consistent national testing program in which officials have no vested interest in claiming victory.
. . . Washington should supply unbiased information about student academic performance to states and local districts. It should then be the responsibility of states and local districts to improve performance.
Ravitch also calls for dropping the “absurd goal” of universal proficiency by 2014. It’s not going to happen, unless proficiency is defined way, way, way down.
Fordham also wants to drop the universal proficiency goal in order to get states to get honest about what their students know. But will schools improve if there’s no goal?