ARC's 1st Law: As a "progressive" online discussion grows longer, the probability of a nefarious reference to Karl Rove approaches one

Monday, February 27, 2006

Education & Standards

I saw this article in the Wall Street Journal (requires subscription). It basically contends that NCLB may be receiving pressure to alter the way it measures progress and academic achievement.

Basic Instincts
February 27, 2006

U.S. students lag behind their peers in other modern nations -- and the gap widens dramatically as their grade levels rise. Our high school pupils (and graduates) are miles from where they need to be to assure them and our country a secure future in the highly competitive global economy. Hence, any serious effort at education reform hinges on our setting world-class standards, then candidly tracking performance in relation to those standards. Even when gains are slender and results disappointing, we need the plain truth. Which is why recent attempts by federal and state governments to sugarcoat the performance of students is so alarming.

Our most rigorous standards are those of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a federally funded testing program that began in 1969. At a time when many states, responding to the accountability prods of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, are embracing low performance norms for their students -- and pumping out misleading information about how many youngsters are "proficient" and how many schools are making "adequate yearly progress" -- NAEP functions as an indispensable external benchmark. It unblinkingly reported that only 29% of eighth grade public school pupils were "proficient" in math and reading in 2005. It also showed starkly that the results reported by many states are far too rosy. Observe (in the adjacent chart) the contrasts between what states claimed and what NAEP found.

Not surprisingly, NAEP's role as honest auditor makes state officials squirm. Since NCLB expects each state to set its own academic norms and choose its own tests, the temptation to dumb them down is irresistible; NAEP is the main antidote. Congress knew that in 2001 when, as part of No Child Left Behind, it required all states to take part in NAEP reading and math tests in grades four and eight. (Previously, state participation was voluntary.) Since 1988, NAEP's standards and policies have been set by the independent, bipartisan National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB). In 1990, that body promulgated three achievement levels for reporting NAEP results. These it labeled "basic," "proficient" and "advanced."
The WSJ article contends that both states and NCLB champions are starting to dumb down the standards, seeking to only show achievement at the "basic" level.
Is No Child Left Behind corrupting NAEP? It's too soon to be sure. But it's clear that, for those in the Bush administration and on Capitol Hill whose own reputations hinge on the perceived success of NCLB, NAEP results now carry consequences, just as they do for states.

Just how demanding is "proficient" anyway? Here's how NAGB defined it for fourth grade math: "Fourth graders performing at the proficient level should be able to use whole numbers to estimate, compute, and determine whether results are reasonable. They should have a conceptual understanding of fractions and decimals; be able to solve real-world problems in all NAEP content areas; and use four-function calculators, rulers and geometric shapes appropriately." Is this too much to expect? Hardly. America's great education problem is that for years we settled for "basic skills" rather than true proficiency. The Bush administration does a disservice to the nation if it tells educators and state officials that "basic" is acceptable. You can be sure that our competitors aren't doing any such thing.

Some day, this will become a serious issue. However, hoping that state & federal bureaucrats will take the education of your child as serious as you is foolish. If the US is going to continue to lead the global economy (not a sure thing in my opinion), our educational system has got to change.

Your Co-Conspirator,
ARC: St Wendeler