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Thursday, June 28, 2007

States Found to Vary Widely on Education

Just came across this important piece. Too much to read. -Angela

States Found to Vary Widely on Education
Posted by Dad on 6/08/07

June 8, 2007
States Found to Vary Widely on Education
By TAMAR LEWIN

Academic standards vary so drastically from state to state
that a fourth grader judged proficient in reading in
Mississippi or Tennessee would fall far short of that mark
in Massachusetts and South Carolina, the United States
Department of Education said yesterday in a report that,
for the first time, measured the extent of the
differences.

The wide variation raises questions about whether the
federal No Child Left Behind law, President Bush’s
signature education initiative, which is up for renewal
this year, has allowed a patchwork of educational
inequities around the country, with no common yardstick to
determine whether schoolchildren are learning enough.

The law requires that all students be brought to
proficiency by 2014 in reading and math and creates
sanctions for failure. But in a bow to states’ rights it
lets each state set its own standards and choose its own
tests.

The report provides ammunition for critics who say that
one national standard is needed. “Parents and communities
in too many states are being told not to worry, all is
well, when their students are far behind,” said Michael J.
Petrilli, a vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham
Foundation who served in the Education Department during
Mr. Bush’s first term.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said in a
statement, “This report offers sobering news that serious
work remains to ensure that our schools are teaching
students to the highest possible standards.” Still, in a
conference call with reporters, she said it was up to the
states, not the federal government, to raise standards.

The report for the first time creates a common yardstick
to measure the results on state tests against the National
Assessment of Educational Progress, considered the gold
standard of testing.

The report examines the minimum score a student would have
to get on each state’s reading and math tests to be deemed
proficient — or at grade level — and then determines what
the equivalent score for that level of competency would be
on the national test. Results on the national test are not
used to judge schools under No Child Left Behind.

The national test divides students’ scores into three
achievement levels, basic, proficient and advanced. Grover
J. Whitehurst, director of the Institute of Education
Sciences at the Education Department, said the achievement
level that many states called proficient was closer to
what the national test rated as just basic. And the report
shows that not a single state sets its reading proficiency
levels as high as the national test.

Although results were not available for all states, the
Education Department report based on tests given in the
2004-5 school year illustrated starkly the variations in
standards.

For example, an eighth grader in Missouri would need the
equivalent of a 311 on the national math test to be judged
proficient. That is actually more rigorous than the
national test. In Tennessee, however, a student can meet
the state’s proficiency standard with a 230, a score well
below even the basic level on the national exam.

And while a Massachusetts fourth grader would need the
equivalent of a 234, or just below the proficiency mark on
the national test, to be judged as proficient by the
state, a Mississippi fourth grader can meet the state’s
standard with a state score that corresponds to a 161 on
the national test.

Such score differences represent a gap of several grade
levels. New York ranked 9th in grade 4 reading, in terms
of the rigor of its standards. Its proficiency standards
corresponded to 207 on the national test. It ranked third
in grade 8 reading. But it was toward the bottom, 29th
among 33 states in grade 4 math. And it was 13th in grade
8 math.

New York has since approved new math standards. “The
results in reading are positive for New York relative to
other states, but math is mixed,” State Education
Commissioner Richard Mills said. “The comparison reminds
us of the need over time to keep raising standards and
providing extra help to students.”

The report found that eighth graders in North Carolina had
to show the least skill to be considered proficient
readers while those in Wyoming had to show the most skill.
Tennessee set the lowest bar on grade 4 math while
Massachusetts set the highest one.

The differences between state proficiency standards were
sometimes more than double the national gap between
minority and white students’ reading levels, which
averages about 30 points on the national test, Mr.
Whitehurst said.

Many education experts criticize No Child Left Behind,
saying it gives states an incentive to set low standards
to avoid sanctions on schools that do not increase the
percentage of students demonstrating proficiency each
year. Those experts argue that uniform national standards
are needed.

But Congress is unlikely to go that far. Ms. Spellings
said, “It’s way too early to conclude we need to adopt
national standards” and added that it is also too early to
conclude that state standards are too low.

On Tuesday, a survey of state scores in reading and math,
released by the Center on Education Policy, an independent
Washington group, found that since the passage of No Child
Left Behind in 2002, student achievement had increased and
the racial achievement gap narrowed in many states.

Ms. Spellings said the results showed the law has “struck
a chord of success.” Her department’s report, though,
raises doubts about just how much progress has been made.

Mr. Petrilli said, “Even if students are making progress
on state tests, if tests are incredibly easy, that doesn’t
mean much.”

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