Friday, June 08, 2007

Data suggest states satisfy No Child law by expecting less of students

"Critics say states are more worried about creating the appearance of academic progress than in raising standards." Reference is made herein to a 2006 report titled, Are They Really Ready to Work?". It's obvious that simply raising standards without dealing with all of the other gaps (economic, housing, criminal justice, etc.) is going to be a limited strategy ultimately. -Angela

The report may be downloaded for free here. -Angela

Data suggest states satisfy No Child law by expecting less of students
By Ledyard King, Gannett News Service

WASHINGTON — Almost every fourth-grader in Mississippi knows how to read. In Massachusetts, only half do.
So what's Mississippi doing that Massachusetts, the state with the most college graduates, isn't? Setting expectations too low, critics say.

The 2002 federal No Child Left Behind law was designed to raise education standards across the country by punishing schools that fail to make all kids proficient in math and reading.

But the law allows each state to chart its own course in meeting those objectives.

The result, according to a Gannett News Service analysis of test scores, is that many states have taken the safe route, keeping standards low and fooling parents into believing their kids are prepared for college and work.

On Thursday, federal education officials plan to release a report that is expected to reach the same conclusion: Many states hold students to a relatively low standard.

Critics say states are more worried about creating the appearance of academic progress than in raising standards.

"Ironically, No Child reforms may have the exact opposite effect they were intended to have," said Bruce Fuller, an education and public policy professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

The GNS analysis found that relying on state test scores to judge students' performance is misleading.

For example, 89% of Mississippi fourth-graders passed the state's reading test in 2005, but only 18% passed the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test. That gap of 71 percentage points was the widest in the nation.

Massachusetts had one of the smallest gaps, with 50% of fourth-graders passing the state reading test and 44% passing the NAEP test.

The national test is taken only by a small percentage of students in each state and often includes questions on material that schools haven't covered yet.

Fuller's research indicates the gap between state test scores and NAEP scores has actually widened in many states since the federal law took effect.

States that don't push students to meet higher standards risk sending them into the work world unprepared — even as global competition increases. More than half of 250 employers surveyed in 2006 said high school graduates are deficient at writing in English, foreign languages and math skills.

"The future U.S. workforce is here — and it is woefully ill-prepared," concluded the report called Are They Really Ready to Work?"

States: Comparisons to NAEP unfair

State education officials deny critics' claims that they're gaming the system by making their tests easier. And they say it's unfair to compare state tests to NAEP.

They also say any changes in testing policies came after careful review and were designed to make sure children learn what state standards require them to know. And they note that federal officials signed off on the changes.

"We didn't game anything," said Tom Horne, superintendent of public instruction in Arizona, which lowered passing scores on several tests in 2005. "We called together a task force and the state (school) board decided to follow their recommendation."

No Child Left Behind requires states to test students in math and reading from third through eighth grade and once in high school. Every child must be proficient in those subjects by 2014.

Schools that don't make "adequate yearly progress" toward that goal risk being flagged as underperforming. Students at those struggling schools may transfer to a better school or the local school district could be forced to use its federal education money to pay for tutoring.

States use a number of "cheap tricks" to create the illusion that students are doing better than they really are, said Dan Koretz, a Harvard University testing expert.

Those include designing tests easy enough for almost all students to pass or lowering passing scores to make sure most students make the grade.

"We fuss all the time about getting parents involved," said former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes, who co-chaired a national commission that looked at ways to improve No Child Left Behind. "Well, we've got to tell the truth to parents so they can get involved."

Philadelphia schools chief Paul Vallas thinks the answer is national standards. Every grade in every state would teach the same material and administer the same test.

Vallas, who will run New Orleans schools starting in July, said students who fled the hurricane-devastated Gulf Coast in 2005 were stunned to find much more rigorous education standards elsewhere.

"The shocker ... is how poorly the kids have done in another state," he said. "It was probably a wake-up call."

President Bush and lawmakers say the punitive elements of No Child Left Behind have prompted states to re-examine standards and focus on long-neglected groups of students, notably minorities and students with disabilities.

On Tuesday, the independent Center on Education Policy issued a report saying student achievement on state tests has risen since 2002.

But it said "it's very difficult, if not impossible" to credit those gains to No Child Left Behind because states and districts already were making improvements before the law took effect.

Test-taking trauma

Critics of the law say it has forced schools to drill kids and emphasize testing at the expense of other learning.

Tiffany Collins, 12, a seventh grader at Robert Frost Middle School in Fairfax, Va., knows May is test time.

"When you think about the test, it's like, 'Oh, it's a big test, and, oh, am I going to be ready for it?'" she said. "I just think it's really a lot of pressure."

States and some independent experts say comparing scores on the federal and state tests isn't valid.

The national exam, they say, was never designed to compare standards from state to state. It's administered only to a sample of students, each of whom takes only a portion of the test.

And teachers and students are far more focused on the state tests because those tests determine whether their schools make adequate progress and, in some cases, whether seniors receive a diploma.

In Maryland, 58% of fourth-graders passed the state reading test in 2003, compared with 32% who passed NAEP. Two years later, 82% passed the state test while the percentage scoring proficient on NAEP stayed the same.

"If it doesn't count for kids, they're not going to take it seriously," said Dixie Stack, director of curriculum at the Maryland Department of Education.

Some states are taking the issue seriously.

In 2005, Tennessee reported the largest difference in the nation between eighth-grade student scores on the state's math and reading tests and scores on NAEP.

The state looked at its standards and found them largely in line with NAEP standards, said Rachel Woods, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education. But the Tennessee tests focused on a multiple-choice format as opposed to NAEP, which demands more essay responses.

Now, Tennessee is rewriting its tests and increasing requirements for high school graduation. That will almost certainly lower the number of kids scoring in the proficient range and increase the number of schools flagged as poor performers, Woods said.

But she said, "What's important is having more kids graduate with the skills they need to succeed in life."

Contributing: Greg Toppo, USA TODAY
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