The DeHavilland Blog

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The education limbo dance

The 2006 OECD report came out recently, and I’ll write about that soon. (Sneak preview: the US didn’t rocket to the top of the rankings since last year’s analysis.) But it did make me think about how we measure our own academic outcomes, since our national system doesn't seem to be preparing us well for international comparisons.

One of the biggest misperceptions among the public is that NCLB sets high academic standards for students and schools, and punishes those who do not meet them. In reality, NCLB does not set any standards, nor does it specify which tests are used to measure student outcomes against those standards. Rather, it only tells the states that they must set their own academic standards, and that they must select the tests used to measure student achievement. (See here for a good overview of the law.)

Because states are free to set the bar anywhere they want, many are setting it low to look as if they’re performing better than they are. As noted at D-Ed Reckoning, Maryland recently reported that 82% of its fourth graders are proficient readers, whereas the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), our country’s only national academic assessment, indicates that only 32% of Maryland fourth graders are proficient or above according to its standards.

Virginia is in the same boat, reporting 86% of its fourth graders are proficient in reading, with NAEP classifying only 37% of Virginia fourth graders as proficient.

Depressed yet? Hold on to your hats – it gets worse.

We assume that NAEP is the gold standard – that students judged to be proficient or better by NAEP can complete rigorous coursework, and that they can stand toe to toe with students from around the world. So at least the standard that states are afraid of is a challenging one.

Turns out that’s not really the case either. Again, according to D-Ed Reckoning, the Brookings Institute took the NAEP math test and coded each question against the scope and sequence of Singapore’s math curriculum in order to judge the rigor of our instruction and assessment against theirs. (Singapore is the top-ranking country in math.)

So how do the NAEP questions stack up? Not well. 76.8% of our 8th grade NAEP questions address material covered in grades 1-4 – and we still see a low level of proficiency, with only 30% of 8th graders scoring at proficient or above. Our 4th grade NAEP also covers younger materials, with 43.6% of questions reflecting material covered in grades 1 and 2. And again, we see a low level proficiency, with 36% of 4th graders scoring at proficient or above.

So it’s a double whammy – we have evidence of states gaming the system, setting standards lower than those of NAEP in order to look as if they’re performing better than they are. Then we find out that our gold standard – the standard that states are attempting not to be judged by – is not gold at all, but is in fact testing content knowledge and skills well below grade level.

We just keep setting the bar lower and lower, trying to post good scores in order to maintain political viability.. But continuing to lower our standards in order to appear proficient is actually reducing true student proficiency at a time when we need better-qualified STEM education than ever before.

This limbo dance has got to stop – it’s time to cut through the politicization of education, set real standards and teach kids so that they can meet them.

Update: Jay Mathews of the Washington Post writes about a related issue here - schools offering advanced classes (AP, honors) that fall well below rigorous standards.


  • On the WaPo article:

    What I can't believe is how the topic of racial steering into magnet programs wasn't addressed at all. In some integrated schools, the white kids go to magnet AP classrooms which have nothing to do with advanced education and everything to do with race. The establishment of minority AP classes may be a response to that. The elephant in the room is to do something about segregation, especially within an otherwise integrated school.

    By Blogger Michael Bindner, at 2:47 PM  

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