An interesting essay, even though I do not agree with the solution.
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When state proficiency standards are lowered, there will be NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND
California's test scores hit a plateau - not good news
Sunday, October 14, 2007
California's state test scores leveled off in 2007, after having jumped seven percentage points in the previous two years. This may be worse news than many Californians think.
Why? Because from 2003 to 2006, California's state test has become easier for the kids taking it. If achievement remains stagnant while the tests are getting easier, that means California's students actually know less today than they did a year ago. In fact, the previous test-score gains reported by the Golden State from 2003 to 2006 may have not actually occurred.
At the heart of the No Child Left Behind Act is the call for all American schoolchildren to become "proficient" in reading and mathematics by 2014. Yet the law allows each state to craft its own definition of proficiency, and to craft the tests that will measure it.
Until now, Californians had to believe that their state's idea of proficiency was a rigorous one - they had to trust that their state officials in Sacramento were going to hold all students to consistently high standards. Unfortunately, it seems that trust may have been misplaced.
Researchers for a new report, "The Proficiency Illusion," compared the test scores of California students on the state test, with their scores on a national assessment, Measures of Academic Progress. Then, in order to measure their consistency over time, California's cut scores (the score needed to reach "proficient" on its tests) were compared to their equivalent scores on the MAP test.
Why not just compare cut scores on the CST to cut scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress, a national test commonly called the nation's report card (although it's not part of any accountability system)? A few reasons: That national test assesses at only three grade levels (4, 8 and 12), and results are not recorded at the individual or school level (which may diminish test-taker motivation). Overall, the MAP shares more in common with California's state test than the other test does.
Despite the fact that California's 2006 cut scores were among the most challenging of the 26 states evaluated, since 2003 the Golden State's cut scores in reading decreased substantially in fourth, seventh and eighth grades.
The test has been getting easier for those who take it. That means that even if California's students made no real academic progress, their test scores would have nonetheless increased - in fourth and eighth grade, stagnant progress would have yielded a gain of 12 percentile points.
From 2003 to 2006, California reported a 10-point gain for fourth-graders and an 11-point gain for eighth-graders. Which means that those student abilities actually declined over that time. (Indeed, from 2003 to 2007, the percentage of the state's eighth-grade students at or above proficient on the national assessment test did decline.)
The same thing occurred on mathematics assessments. Looking at the data, one could fairly say that California's seventh-grade math tests were easier to pass in 2006 than in 2003.
Thankfully, California's state tests remain tougher than most others in the country. Parents of students scoring well above the proficient level can be relatively confident that their children are sound academically.
But for students on the bubble, those who just squeaked over the proficient hurdle, California's tests are much less reliable.
Johnny just reaches the proficient level in fourth grade. He continues to barely hit that mark over the next four years. While it looks like Johnny is making normal progress, he's not - the test is getting easier, and Johnny is falling behind (albeit, invisibly).
If the proficiency label is changing, it's impossible to gauge whether individual students (not to mention the state's education system) are making any academic progress.
These findings should make California citizens furious. Parents led to believe that their public-school students were making progress were fed incorrect data - the definition of progress may have changed. If it didn't, then students are surely being fed test prep strategies that would get them over the "proficient" mark in California's particular assessment, but wouldn't help them on another test. In other words, students still aren't actually learning anything but how to game the system.
Regardless of how it has happened, the dumbing down of proficiency has certainly undercut educational accountability in California. All citizens need to now reassess how well the state is running its schools - how well it's running its schools in reality, that is.
What's the solution? A rigorous national test (one that's part of an accountability system) would be best. It's crazy for a 21st century nation to struggle with the discrepant patchwork of assessments that the United States now has.
But more immediately: State policymakers should determine why, exactly, their test is getting easier, and then stop it. And in the meantime, California parents must make sure that their schools are not teaching to the test.
Learning isn't about teaching kids how to memorize the format of the state test; it's about teaching them a broad and challenging curriculum. When that happens, the test scores take care of themselves.
Liam Julian is associate writer and editor at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a research fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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