Yesterday’s release of the National Center for Education Statistics’ report Mapping State Proficiency Standards Onto National Assessment of Education Progress Scales: 2005-2007 seemed like it was almost lifted from the movie Casablanca. We are shocked, shocked to learn that many states’ “standards” are hardly standards at all. For years, we’ve been reading about how student proficiency on state exams has been on the rise, while NAEP scores have remained virtually stagnant. Now, NCES paints a grim picture of the situation, demonstrating that most states are below or only meet the basic learning standards established by NAEP.
How can that be? The cynic in us says that states have been downgrading their state assessments to meet NCLB and AYP expectations. As they need to demonstrate year-on-year gains in math and reading, they’ve had to readjust their tests and their scoring scales to demonstrate such gains. It is why we hear that, according to state data, students in Alabama beat students in Massachusetts when it comes to reading proficiency. Of course, there is no telling what those numbers would look like if Bay Staters were taking Alabama’s state test instead of their own MCAS. The full NCES study can be found here.
Perhaps the strongest statement on the NCES report came from Congressman George Miller, the chairman of the House Education Committee. In response to the latest data comparisons, Miller said: “The quality of a child’s education should not be determined by their zip code. It is unacceptable that many states have chosen to lower the bar rather than strive for excellence. This means that many students aren’t even expected to rise to meet rigorous standards — they are allowed to linger in a system that doesn’t challenge them to do better and doesn’t help them to develop the complex skills and knowledge needed to succeed in the jobs of the future.”
These are strong words from the man who is in charge of managing reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act next year, the Congressman who will ultimately decide the future of AYP, the adoption of core standards, and the development of the assessments and data systems to track against those standards. And they are right on the money. Effective assessment has hardly been a strong suit in U.S. public education, particularly considering the rough patchwork that has long made up our testing systems. That’s why so many people are providing a big bear hug to the notion of common core standards. In the pursuit of a better mousetrap, we hope that core standards provide a common baseline for all assessment, regardless of the state administering the exam. If we accept the concept of core standards, it means that fourth grade reading proficiency means the same thing in Alabama as it does in Massachusetts, the same in Texas as it is in Oregon. And if the we are all working off the same standards, in theory, we should all have similar benchmarks by which to measure proficiency. Proficient is proficient.
But if we are moving from the promise of core standards to the realization of common expectations, we can’t overlook some of the core realities that underly the data. Yes, we should be appalled that proficiency percentages on state exams don’t track well with NAEP proficiencies. But we should be equally appalled (if not more so) by what NAEP itself tells us.
As Eduflack has discussed before, the eighth grade reading NAEP has long been considered the best measure of true student achievement. It provides a strong longitudinal approach to learning (as kids have been taught reading four eight years), and those reading skills are essential to success in other academic subjects. We look at Massachusetts, with the highest eighth grade NAEP scores, and see it as the gold standard in reading proficiency. But only 43 percent of Massachusetts eighth graders score proficient or better on the reading NAEP. Is that really the bar we want to set, where nearly six in 10 students are scoring below proficient? Is that the best we can do, or the best to which we aspire?
Core standards will only take us so far. At some point, we have to raise our game when it comes to both teaching and learning, ensuring that all students are gaining the skills and knowledge necessary to both hit the mark on the requisite assessments and achieve when it comes to both college and career opportunities. Standards only mean so much if we aren’t achieving the goals they set forth.