High Standards By What Measure?

Since the introduction of AYP measures more than eight years ago, we have heard many a tale of states accused of “cooking the books” in order to look strong under the latest school evaluation tools.  The most common tale is that of states that continually drop their state standards, hoping to demonstrate the sort of continuous student gains the federal law was seeking.  Instead of improving instruction, states simply lowered expectations.  Each year, more students on the fringes would hit proficient.  But what, exactly, did proficient mean?

Now that the U.S. Department of Education has taken up reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, issued a rallying cry for common core standards, and encouraged a strengthening of such standards through Race to the Top, the subject has taken on even greater importance.  And now Education Next has offered up some startling statistics startling statistics regarding where states — including those seen as the leading reformers — really stand when it comes to good, hard standards.
According to Paul Peterson and Carlos Xabel Lastra-Anadon, we see that only two states — Massachusetts and Missouri — are at the top of the class when it comes to the strength of their state standards.  Meanwhile, Tennessee is at the very bottom of the list, with Nebraska, Alabama, and Michigan nipping closely at the Volunteer State’s heels.
To get at the true “strength” of each state’s standards, the study compared state standards with NAEP standards.  So it should be no surprise that Massachusetts, historically the top-performing NAEP state, is at the top of the pack.  What is so disturbing, though, is how few states can truly match up with the NAEP standards.  In eighth grade, only seven states scores above a C for reading standards.  And only 13 managed to score above the mid-mark for math.
This very topic was also the subject of testimony testimony heard by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee last week.  Dr. Gary Phillips, VP and Chief Scientist at American institutes for Research and former head of the National Center for Education Statistics, went right into the lion’s den to tell the HELP Committee, including Tennessee’s Senator Lamar Alexander, that we have real problems when it comes to state standards, particularly in Tennessee.  It should be noted that Senator Alexander, the former U.S. Education Secretary, graciously accepted the fact that Tennessee has struggled, in the past, with establishing high standards.  But the Volunteer State is now committed to fixing the problem.  
In his remarks, Phillips pointed out:

The most significant thing wrong with NCLB is a lack of transparency. The severe consequences of failing to meet AYP had the unintended consequence of encouraging states to lower, rather than raise, their own standards. The law inadvertently encouraged the states to dumb down their performance standards to get high rates of proficiency. The fact that states dumb down their performance standards can be seen in Figures 1 and 2 in this document. The “percent proficient” in these tables represent what was reported by NCLB in Grades 4 and 8 in mathematics in 2007. In my remaining remarks I will use Grade 8 to illustrate my points. In Grade 8 we see that Tennessee is the highest achieving state in the nation while Massachusetts is one of the lowest. If parents were looking to raise a family in a state with an excellent track record of success based on NCLB data, they should move their family to Tennessee. However, there is something wrong with this picture. We know that NAEP reports exactly the opposite with Massachusetts the highest achieving state and Tennessee being one of the lowest achieving states. 

Phillips notes that we not only have that ever-present achievement gap looming over us, but if we look at NAEP and international benchmarks like TIMSS and PISA, we have an even more ominous expectation gap hovering.  In his analysis, Phillips noted that there is almost two standard deviations of difference between Massachusetts and Tennessee.  So what does that mean for the average layman, the average parent, or the average policymaker?  It is pretty simple, and pretty scary.  if we look at what the average eighth grader in Tennessee is expected to know and be able to do, at least with regard to reading and math, that is what the average sixth grader in Massachusetts is doing.  Yes, two standard deviations means almost the equivalent of two grade levels.
So why is that so important?  To use a bad phrase, you do the math.  If there are essentially two grade levels of difference between standards in one state versus the other, what happens when the clock runs out?  Those things to be learned and measured in 11th and 12th grade are never gained.  States graduate kids who are at a disadvantage for college, in theory knowing less and being able to do less than fellow students from other states.  And at a time when we are saying a college education is the name of the game, having students from a majority of states starting college behind — at least when it comes to proficiency in math and reading — is hardly the starting point we want for that non-negotiable of postsecondary education.
Obviously, this is why the common core standards are so important.  If every state is measured by the same yardstick, it becomes much harder to cook those books.  Yes, we will still have states looking to exempt certain student populations (like ELLs and special education) from the final calculations.  But hopefully that bar is the same for every student to clear.  It means a proficient student in Massachusetts is the same as a proficient student in Alabama is the same as a proficient student in Arizona.  That high school diploma has common meaning.  And those entering college are, hopefully, starting with the same core toolbox of skills and knowledge.
As the rewrite of ESEA begins, this is a issue to which Congress and the Administration have to give very clear, strong, and specific attention.  How do we strengthen standards across the board?  How do we ensure continued accountability for those standards, as we have under AYP?  And most importantly, how do we ensure that students are both learning and able to utilize the very skills we expect everyone to have at fourth grade, eighth grade, or upon high school graduation?
Lots of questions, yes.  But from reading Education Next, hearing Gary Phillips, and following the many others that are now keying in on this issue of meaningful standards, it is a topic we are now taking seriously.
(Full disclosure, Eduflack works with the good folks over at AIR.)

20 thoughts on “High Standards By What Measure?

  1. There is certainly a clear correlation between standards, expectations and student achievement. As a Massachusetts parent I question if we adopt the Common Core Standards, will Massachusetts eventually have lower expectations over-time? Is there a study that shows that the CCS are as rich as the Massachusetts current standards?

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