Cats, dogs and Tolstoy

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?

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Comments

  1. 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.

    Hooray, someone who gets it!

    The expectation that 100% of students can master meaningful standards is ridiculous.

    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?

    Student-centered goals are the way to go. How much has the student learned in the course of an academic year and how does this compare with where they started and what they’ve done in the past? Set goals that below average students are challenged by but can actually reach and set goals for above average students that make them excel. Don’t ditch the standardized testing because you have to have some kind of objective data. Focus on smaller, more frequent tests that schools don’t have the opportunity to cram for and are less sensative to the “I had a bad day” problems.

  2. 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?

    Dropping a bad goal does not preclude setting a good one.

  3. Two points:…

    1) People expect too much from standards. Academic standards are to intellectual growth what yardsticks are to physical growth. Spend all you like on platinum yardsticks and children will grow no faster.

    Some years ago I took the grades which the Education Trust and Fordham gave to States for their curricular standards, converted these grades to numbers on a 0-4 point scale, and used EXCEL to compute the coefficient correlation (std, score), where “std” is the standards grade and “score” is NAEP 8th grade Math score. The coefficient of correlation is negative. The higher the grade for Math standards, the worse students performed.

    The only standard likely to improve school performance is the parent standard: “Do I want my child in that school?” Until politicians give to individual parents the power to determine which institution, if any, shall receive the taxopayers’ K-12 education subsidy, education industry insiders will sabotage meaningful feedback mechanisms, including “standards”.

    2) Univerasl proficiency is a mirage. Conception is a crapshoot and some parents roll snake-eyes. For every level of performance above “comatose” and for every level of resources, there is a student such that that level of resources is insufficient to achieve that level of performance. The human and canine IQ curves overlap.

  4. Oh gee, cheating on the test by the folks who want to keep the federal bucks flowing. What a shock.

    > The main goal of the law — that all children in the United States will be proficient in reading and mathematics by 2014 — is simply unattainable.

    Now there’s a thoughtful observation.

    We now know what Diane Ravitch thinks *can’t* be done. I wonder what she thinks the goal ought to be? Something deliciously vague but stuffed full of implications? Should all children be helped to reach their full potential in a supportive, nurturing environment? Maybe some self-actualizing thrown in as an additional goody like raisins in breakfast cereal?

    What percentage of kids should know how to read and add? You’d think that certainty about what isn’t attainable would be followed by some estimation of what *is* obtainable. Yet nowhere is any realizable goal stated.

    > Academic standards are to intellectual growth what yardsticks are to physical growth.

    Lousy analogy. Academic standards are to intellectual growth what a map is to a journey.

    Since the goal is to have citizens capable of participating in society, there are minimums which ought not to breached other then in exceptional circumstances. A test tells you how close or far any given kid is from the goal and by inference how good the institution is in facilitating movement toward that goal, whether the institution is getting better or worse.

    > For every level of performance above “comatose” and for every level of resources, there is a student such that that level of resources is insufficient to achieve that level of performance.

    Oh, let’s just see what *can* be accomplished when those paid to do a job no longer have the luxury of blaming everything in sight for failure to fulfill their responsibilities shall we?

  5. “People expect too much from standards. Academic standards are to intellectual growth what yardsticks are to physical growth. Spend all you like on platinum yardsticks and children will grow no faster.”

    Growth in height is a physical process which cannot be materially influenced unless you subject the child to malnutrition or give him growth hormones. If learning is a process of this type, it might be asked why are we spending hundreds of billions of dollars on education?

    A better analogy would be strength training. If we are paying a coach to improve the weight-lifting ability of a group of people, it is not irrational to periodically measure how many pounds they can lift and see if the techniques being used are really working.

  6. Dave, I agree with your view of assessment. Measurement is useful. Nutrition can influence growth. Yardsticks can measure differences in nutritional regimes. Food (by analogy, instruction) is more important. Growth can occur without any standards at all; it cannot occur without food. Perhaps a more instructive analogy than yardsticks and physical growth is thermometers and halth. Only an idiot would stake improving the national health care system on improved thermometers.

    Allen, many people in the ed biz use “standards” as you do in your “map” analogy. I suggest that that is part of the problem. Confusion about words, and talk of vague “goals” and “journeys” provide cover for system insiders, giving them “the luxury of blaming everything in sight for failure to fulfill their responsibilities”.

    You can get an idea about what Ravitch wants from her book Left Back; A Cebtury of Failed School Reforms. She’s too prescriptive (classical education) for me. I prefer minimal standards and parent control.

    http://harriettubmanagenda.blogspot.com/2006/09/national-standards-and-federalism.html