‘Proficient’ doesn’t always mean proficient

Lyndazia Ruffin, a fifth grader, last month at West Broad Elementary School in Columbus, Ohio. Photo:Andrew Spear, New York Times

A test score that’s marked “proficient” in Ohio may be “approached expectations” in Illinois, reports Motoko Rich in the New York Times.

Two-thirds of Ohio students at most grade levels were proficient on Core-aligned reading and math tests designed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, said state officials. education-test

But “similar scores on the same tests meant something quite different in Illinois, where education officials said only about a third of students were on track.”

In California and North Carolina, state officials combined students who passed with those who “nearly passed.”  Florida’s education commissioner “recommended passing rates less stringent than in other states,” reports Rich.

Before the Common Core, each state set its own standards and devised its own tests. Some states made the standardized tests so easy or set passing scores so low that virtually all students were rated proficient even as they scored much lower on federal exams and showed up for college requiring remedial help.

Setting common standards and using common tests was supposed to end all that. It hasn’t.

“That mentality of saying let’s set proficient at a level where not too many people fail is going to kill us,” said Marc S. Tucker, the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, a nonprofit think tank. “The global standard of what proficient is keeps moving up.”

Ohio will scrap the Parcc exam and hire a developer to come up with another set of tests, writes Rich. “Three other states similarly scrapped the Parcc test after administering it this year, creating an increasingly atomized landscape across the country.”

Feds end ‘2% rule’ for disabled students

Disabled students won’t be counted as proficient — unless they’re really meeting college and career readiness standards, under  new regulations proposed by the U.S. Education Department. Currently, the “2 percent rule” lets states count up to 2 percent of disabled test-takers as proficient, regardless of their achievement levels.

“We have to expect the very best from our students and tell the truth about student performance, to prepare them for college and career,” said U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan. “That means no longer allowing the achievement of students with disabilities to be measured by these alternate assessments aligned to modified achievement standards.”

Being honest about students’ achievement is a good thing, but educators will be embittered — even more so — if they’re held to impossible standards. Students with disabilities achieve more when expectations are high, but — even with the best teaching in the world — many won’t able to meet standards linked to college readiness. (“Career” is thrown in there, but there are no lower career-ready standards.)

A ‘tsunami’ of disabled students

Community colleges are seeing a “tsunami” of students with intellectual and physical disabilities. Some colleges offer special programs for students with developmental disabilities or autism.

Also on Community College Spotlight: Why do so many “proficient” high school students end up in remedial math?

Proficient in Texas, but not in Missouri

Most states don’t match federal proficiency standards for elementary math and reading, a new federal report concludes.

Eight states have raised standards in recent years. South Carolina has lowered its standards, though the new superintendent pledges to raise the bar.

The National Center for Education Statistics compares state requirements to the National Assessment of Education Progress.

In fourth-grade reading, for example, 35 states set passing bars that are below the “basic” level on the national NAEP exam. “Basic” means students have a satisfactory understanding of material, as opposed to “proficient,” which means they have a solid grasp of it. Massachusetts is the only state to set its bar at “proficient”—and that was only in fourth- and eighth-grade math.

The report shows huge disparities among the standards states set when their tests are converted to the NAEP’s 500-point scale. In eighth-grade reading, for example, there is a 60-point difference between Texas, which has the lowest passing bar, and Missouri, which has the highest, according to the data. In eighth-grade math, there is a 71-point spread between the low, Tennessee, and the high, Massachusetts.

A Tennessee eighth grader could be considered proficient without being able to read a graph, while a Massachusetts student meeting the proficiency benchmark “would likely be able to solve a math problem using algebra and geometry.”

NY schools get bad news on proficiency

After years of rising test scores, New York education leaders concluded the state has been defining proficiency down.  It takes a higher score this year for a student to qualify as proficient, which equates to doing grade-level work. This year’s lower pass rates have been a shock to schools, reports the New York Times.

In New York City, the proficiency rate in English fell from 69 percent to 42 percent; math proficiency fell from 82 percent to 54 percent.  Principals have been earning bonuses for raising scores; teacher evaluations are based partially on test scores.  To adjust for the sharp drop in scores, schools will be graded on a curve this year, with 25 percent to receive A’s, 35 percent B’s, 25 percent C’s, 10 percent D’s and 5 percent F’s.

At some schools, the drop was breathtaking. At Public School 85 in the Bronx, known as the Great Expectations School, there was a literal reversal in fortune, with proficiency on the third-grade math test flipping from 81 percent to 18 percent. At the main campus of the Harlem Promise Academy, one of the city’s top-ranked charter schools, proficiency in third-grade math dropped from 100 percent to 56 percent.

. . . The charter school run by the local teachers’ union, the UFT Charter School, showed one of the most severe declines, to 13 percent of eighth graders proficient in math, from 79 percent.

The racial achievement gap widened as many black and Hispanic students, just passing under the old system, now fall below proficient.

Many more third through eighth graders will have to attend summer school in 2011 to be promoted to the next grade.

In schools where children were scoring well above grade level, though, the passing rate did not change much. At Public School 172 in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, for example, last year’s 100 percent on the third-grade math test inched down to 99 percent, and the fourth-grade English passing rate slipped to 96 percent, from 99 percent.

Students answered about the same number of questions correctly this year, but the score required for a passing grade went up.

Top-ranked P.S. 155 will try harder,  the principal, Linda Singer, told the Times. “We are ordering a grammar book ASAP; that was a weakness,” she added. “We are going to push in professional development for teaching that is different for each child.”

In short, the bad news could be good news for students who aren’t working at grade level but could be.

'Proficient' = 52% graduation rate

Test scores are soaring in New York, reports the Buffalo News. But the scores don’t mean students are doing well, says Education Commissioner David M. Steiner.

Steiner asked a group led by Harvard’s Daniel M. Koretz to determine whether eighth-grade scores correlate to high school Regents exam scores and then to success in college.

The conclusion: Students in New York State are moving through elementary, middle and high school with test scores they believe to be adequate, but once they get to college, they find they are not prepared.

“Proficient” on New York’s test was equivalent to the 45th percentile on national tests in 2006, the study finds. By 2009, students at the 20th percentile on national tests were being labeled proficient in New York.

No wonder scores are up.

Even worse, of all students who test proficient in math and reading in eighth grade, only half graduate from high school, reports the New York Post.

More than 95 percent of those who graduate with the minimum passing score (65) on the Regents math exam end up in remedial math as CUNY freshmen. The study found students who score below 80 have little chance of passing college-level classes.

This is no surprise, writes Core Knowledge’s Robert Pondiscio.

For years, I saw 5th graders come into my Bronx classroom who were ostensibly on grade level yet demonstrated little command of basic arithmetic.

But not everybody wants to take an honest look at how well students are doing, Pondiscio notes.

Buffalo’s school superintendent blasted Steiner and his deputy John King last week for focusing on more rigorous tests. ”I think they’re two people who don’t know what they’re doing,” James A. Williams told the Buffalo News. “A more rigorous test is not going to improve student achievement. It’s not going to improve the graduation rate. I think it’s ridiculous.”

. . . Steiner isn’t talking about testing our way to proficiency. He’s talking about how test scores should be indicative of real-world proficiency.

Pretending that marginal students are “proficient” isn’t going to raise the achievement rate either.

Twice as many New York City students are taking summer school classes this year, the Post reports, because Steiner made this year’s math and reading tests less predictable and wider in scope and raised the passing bar.  That might raise achievement and graduation rates.

Where basic is 'proficient'

To meet No Child Left Behind’s call for universal proficiency by 2014, some states have lowered standards, concludes a new report by the National Council for Education Statistics. In fourth-grade reading, 31 states consider students proficient who’d score below basic on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP).  Fifteen states set the proficiency cut-off below NAEP’s basic level in eighth-grade reading.  In eighth-grade math, eight states set proficiency below NAEP’s basic level.

Education Week has more.

A 4th grade student judged to be proficient in math in Colorado or Tennessee, for example, could conceivably test at the “basic” level in Massachusetts or Missouri, where the standards were judged to be most rigorous, according to the study.

States’ very low expectations for fourth-grade reading are especially troubling, says Rob Manwaring at The Quick and the Ed. It’s a gateway skill.

Toughen the tests

New York needs tougher tests that measure student progress, writes Diane Ravitch. In response to No Child Left Behind, New York made it much easier for weak students to be classified as “proficient,” she writes.

In 2006, a seventh-grade student needed to get 59.6 percent of the points on the state math test to become proficient (Level 3); by 2009, it was just 44 percent. Remember the old days when 44 percent was a failing mark? Not any more.

. . . In 2006, third-grade students had to get 43.6 percent of the points on the math test to earn a Level 2 — but by 2009, they needed to get only 28.2 percent of the points. On the English language-arts test, the cutoff to earn a Level 2 in sixth grade dropped from 41 percent of the points in 2006 to just 17.9 percent in 2009.

New York City wants to end social promotion by requiring students to reach Level 2 to move to the next grade. But students who guess blindly can do well enough to reach Level 2.

The Regents exam also has been downgraded, Ravitch writes.

To get a diploma, students must get a 65 on each of five Regents exams. Sounds tough — but it’s not anymore, thanks to the State Education Department’s statistical magic.

On the algebra Regents, a student collects a passing score of 65 if he or she earns only 34.5 percent of the possible points. On the biology exam, a “pass” requires earning only 46 percent.

Ravitch suggests giving honors, college-ready and work-ready diplomas that  reflect “realistic goals for everyone, rather than a low hurdle that almost everyone can step over.”

I think this makes a lot of sense.

All boats rise

Reading and math achievement in improving across the nation, concludes a study by the Center on Education Policy.  The study found no evidence that the federal push for “proficient” performance has shortchanged advanced or low-achieving students.

. . . even though NCLB creates incentives for schools to focus on ensuring students reach the proficient level, states posted gains at the advanced and basic-and-above levels as well. At the basic-and-above level, 73 percent of the trend lines analyzed across various subjects and grades showed gains. At the advanced level, 71 percent of the trend lines analyzed showed improvement.

“If accountability policies were indeed shortchanging high- and low-achieving students, we would expect to see stagnation or decline at the basic and advanced levels,” said Jack Jennings, CEP’s president and CEO. “Instead, the percentages of students scoring at the basic-and-above and advanced levels have increased much more often than they have decreased, especially in the lower grades.”

Students improved more in math than in reading. Most of the gains were seen in elementary and middle school, though high school scores improved slightly.

Update: Eduwonk and Mickey Kaus wonder why the study hasn’t made more of a splash. Eduwonk asks:

Is it too cynical to think it would be bigger news if it went the other way?

Education Week has more on the study; many of the comments from educators dismiss the importance of higher reading and math scores.

Quality Counts 2009: English Learners

Education Week’s Quality Counts 2009 report focuses on how well states are teaching students who start school without fluency in English. The numbers are growing rapidly:  The number of students classified as English Language Learners rose by 57 percent from 1995 to 2005.  ELL numbers quadrupled in Arkansas, Indiana, North Carolina, and South Carolina.

Ø Only 9.6 percent of 4th and 8th grade ELLs scored “proficient” or higher in mathematics on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in 2007, compared with 34.8 percent of students as a whole.

Ø The gap was similar on the 2007 NAEP in reading: 5.6 percent of ELLs scored proficient, compared with a national average of 30.4 percent.

One-fourth of ELLs showed no progress in a year. That varies from Maine, where 44.9 percent failed to improve, to Connecticut, where  just 1.4 percent made no progress.

English-Learners Pose Policy Puzzle reports that only a third of ELLs are foreign-born and nearly half are the children of immigrants.

Seventeen percent of ELLs are third-generation Americans with both parents born in the United States.

I’m guessing third-generation kids are mislabeled. They speak English fluently but read and write poorly for reasons other than the fact that some Spanish is spoken at home.

The report includes profiles of immigrant students from different cultures, countries and educational backgrounds.