Why state tests are any­thing but stan­dard

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - BY HAROLD O. LEVY The writer is ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Jack Kent Cooke Foun­da­tion and was New York City schools chan­cel­lor from 2000 to 2002.

Some states, rec­og­niz­ing that teach­ing read­ing to all stu­dents is a tough busi­ness, have sim­ply cho­sen to le­git­imize il­lit­er­acy by mak­ing their tests so easy that al­most any­one can pass them. That’s the sorry con­clu­sion I’ve reached af­ter go­ing through this year’s se­lec­tion process for the elite schol­ar­ship pro­gram I head. An amaz­ing dis­par­ity in stan­dards is emerg­ing. This race to the bot­tom has got to stop.

Un­der the fed­eral No Child Left Be­hind Act, each state is re­quired to con­duct an­nual assess­ments in third through eighth grade in math and read­ing. His­tor­i­cally, there has al­ways been a range of stan­dards and scores in the var­i­ous states, with a clus­ter of Eastern states hav­ing both the high­est stan­dards and scores, and with Mis­sis­sippi at the bot­tom. To­day, the Eastern states are still at the top (although they’ve shuf­fled around a bit) and Mis­sis­sippi has raised its stan­dards dra­mat­i­cally, but other states are giv­ing Mis­sis­sippi a run for the ti­tle of na­tional dunce.

When the au­thors of the Na­tional As­sess­ment of Ed­u­ca­tional Progress (NAEP) test— the “na­tion’s re­port card” — sought to “map” their na­tional stan­dards against the stan­dards es­tab­lished by in­di­vid­ual states us­ing the most re­cent avail­able data, they iden­ti­fied 10 states where read­ing pro­fi­ciency stan­dards were be­low the NAEP stan­dards. Jill Bar­shay of the Hechinger Re­port re­cently called out Ge­or­gia for hav­ing stan­dards that are par­tic­u­larly weak; they are a full four grades be­hind New York’s, which are gen­er­ally re­garded as the tough­est. The great­est scorn, how­ever, has to be re­served for the five states that have set their eighth-grade stan­dards be­low the NAEP lev­els in both read­ing and math: Alabama, Con­necti­cut, Ge­or­gia, Idaho and Ohio. The leg­is­la­tors in those states who per­mit this fraud on the public are doom­ing their pop­u­la­tions to fail­ure.

The Jack Kent Cooke Foun­da­tion, which I head, uses state scores to award large schol­ar­ships to ex­cep­tion­ally high-per­form­ing, low-in­come stu­dents na­tion­ally. We use the state tests to equal­ize grades among schools, be­cause dif­fer­ent schools em­ploy very dif­fer­ent stan­dards in their grad­ing. How­ever, it has be­come clear to me that we can no longer use state tests with­out a sep­a­rate equal­izer among the tests them­selves when sev­eral schol­ar­ship ap­pli­cants with top state test scores also had ter­ri­ble stan­dard­ized test scores. The Col­lege Board’s widely ad­min­is­tered PSAT re­vealed that many of the stu­dents who would be re­garded as ex­em­plary, for ex­am­ple, in Ge­or­gia would be re­garded as merely pro­fi­cient (or worse) in many other states.

The state-by-state dis­par­i­ties at the “ad­vanced” level are par­tic­u­larly re­veal­ing. Us­ing the NAEP eighth-grade read­ing stan­dards, for ex­am­ple, Mis­sis­sippi had 1 per­cent of its stu­dents score “ad­vanced” and Ne­vada 3 per­cent, while Mary­land had 7 per­cent and Mas­sachusetts 8 per­cent. With­out us­ing the NAEP test re­sults to equi­li­brate the scores, we might have been mis­led into be­liev­ing that all “ad­vanced” per­form­ers on the state tests were equal. That turns out to be false, the prod­uct of the kind of sub­terfuge that would not be tol­er­ated if test scores were sub­ject to con­sumer pro­tec­tion laws.

The up­date of the Ele­men­tary and Sec­ondary Ed­u­ca­tion Act mak­ing its way through Congress does noth­ing to rem­edy this sit­u­a­tion. It does for the first time fa­cil­i­tate com­par­isons among stu­dents of dif­fer­ent in­come brack­ets, which is a ma­jor step in the right di­rec­tion. How­ever, it con­tin­ues the prac­tice of al­low­ing each state to set its own stan­dards. As a re­sult, a state can set the bar low and claim vic­tory when its stu­dents clear the un­jus­ti­fi­ably low hur­dle. States that choose to reach higher are then crit­i­cized for hav­ing fewer of their stu­dents reach the os­ten­si­bly “ad­vanced” level. This is ex­actly what hap­pened two years ago when the New York Board of Re­gents was crit­i­cized for a pre­cip­i­tous “drop” in the per­cent­age of stu­dents deemed pro­fi­cient in read­ing; what re­ally hap­pened was that the state adopted an ap­pro­pri­ately rig­or­ous set of stan­dards. Those who sim­ply read the tabloid head­lines would have thought the schools had sud­denly be­come in­com­pe­tent. New York school of­fi­cials were crit­i­cized for a “drop” when all that they were do­ing was fi­nally be­ing hon­est. Iron­i­cally, neigh­bor­ing Con­necti­cut, with its em­bar­rass­ingly low stan­dards, was si­mul­ta­ne­ously be­ing praised for hav­ing so many of its stu­dents ace what in re­al­ity were dumbed-down tests.

In a dig­i­tized econ­omy, stu­dents can no longer af­ford this po­lit­i­cal shell game. All states should be com­pelled to use rig­or­ous stan­dards. That’s the only way we will know which chil­dren are be­ing ed­u­cated and which are be­ing cheated.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.