UPDATED: Students Display Tentative Improvement in Reading, Math Scores
> 6/6/2007 10:21:43 AM

In a major study that has already begun to generate conversation largely divided along political lines, American students appear to have scored slightly higher on standardized tests for reading and math in the period starting in 2002, just before the No Child Left Behind Act was authorized, than in years immediately prior. NCLB supporters point to this story as evidence of the program's efficacy while critics contend that the gathered statistics prove nothing beyond the fact that our teachers are, in the face of current legislation, forced to "dumb down" their standards and "teach the test" in order to avoid crippling punitive actions on the part of the federal government. The authors of the independent study, published by the Center on Education Policy, also caution against using it to reach larger conclusions, stating that their efforts cannot decisively link these small improvements to the Act itself: “it is difficult if not impossible to determine the extent to which these trends in test results have occurred because of N.C.L.B.”

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings apparently did not take this qualification into account, issuing a statement to the effect that the study provides irrefutable proof of NCLB's successes and leaves our Congress with a responsibility to reauthorize it in the best interests of the average student. Of course, any improvement in performance among American students, who are repeatedly depicted as beleaguered and insufficiently prepared for the challenges of higher education and the working world, can be seen as a positive development. And there is no question that the reported scoring averages of students in quite a few states have gone up in the four years since the plan took effect. The largest increases came in math, with 22 of the 25 states who provided sufficient data recording moderate to significant improvements in math on the elementary and middle school levels. Gains in high school scores were less significant, and some states even reported declines in that age group, but the majority showed small improvements.

Among NCLB's greatest ambitions is the elimination or severe reduction of the achievement gap between students of different ethnic and socioeconomic persuasions. White and Asian students have consistently scored higher on standardized tests than Black, Latino and low-income students. In this area, results were encouraging: though the sizable gaps in question remain, most states registered a slight narrowing of that divide. There's no ready explanation for this very positive development, and it calls for further study.

One of the problems with the reporting methods used in this matter is that states are for the most part responsible for producing their own data assessments, and researchers claim that much of the data covering these individual states was either incomplete or altogether unavailable (hence their inability to consider more than 25 states while comparing math scores). According to critics, this produces an open-ended equation in which states can very easily overstate their respective gains for their own benefit, in effect manipulating the data they provide in order to avoid being labeled as unsatisfactory or not truly complying with standards set by NCLB. Some contradictory results seem to back this claim up: in Nevada, for example, reading proficiency levels declined while test scores went up. But New Jersey saw the opposite result, as test scores suffered and proficiency levels rose slightly.

The data also conflicts with the 2006 National Assessment of Educational Progress, which noted slight improvements in math scores but an actual decline in reading scores among eighth graders. Rising test scores without equivalent gains in proficiency provide skeptics with supposed evidence of the "teaching to the test" trend. The NAEP, however, is a more general report that does not focus on individual state scores as does the new study. The fact that the results are different should not come as a surprise. Researchers also note that most states have changed their tests or completely revised their testing formats both in the years since 2002 and before the act went into effect, making it impossible to judge recent scores in relation to those recorded before the changes.

The warnings included by the study's authors are valid: while these statistics imply that children are getting better at taking the tests in question, no larger statement about the success or failure of NCLB policies can safely be made by drawing on this data. Even if the increases in scores are an accurate reflection of the act's effects, it is not an a pace to be anywhere near its goal of achieving full proficiency across the country by 2014. To move closer to a true assessment of the program, we need to develop more thorough and transparent methods of measuring and comparing these test scores. Until we reach that point, any claims detailing how these small trends will better prepare students for their respective futures are pure speculation. As the report reads: "test scores are not the same thing as achievement...they are imperfect and incomplete measures of how much students have learned." Any further developments will be watched very closely.

UPDATE: A new report issued by the U.S. Department of Education comes only two days after the above-mentioned study by the Center for Education Policy and seems to confirm the opinion that recent spikes in math and reading scores across the country resulted from varying state-specific standards rather than better-educated students. The latest study began with the minimum requirements for proficiency in each state, comparing and adapting them to the NAEP in order to better compare the relative levels used across the country. Its results make clear that these standards vary widely from one state to another:

"For example, an eighth grader in Tennessee can meet that state’sstandards for math proficiency with a state test score that is theequivalent of a 230 on the national test. But in Missouri, an eighthgrader would need the equivalent of a 311.And while a Mississippi fourth grader can meet the state’s readingproficiency standard with a state score that corresponds to a 161 onthe national test, a Massachusetts fourth grader would need theequivalent of a 234."

Some argue that adapting the state-by-state results to parallel a test whose purpose has never been in comparing the levels of proficiency in each state is less than fair. The NAEP, they point out, is administered to only a randomly selected sample of American students. While this may be true, it hardly explains the size of the cognitive gaps existing between these respective states. And while students in different schools across all the amazingly varied parts of this country certainly don't need to study the very same materials in the very same way, one wonders why certain states have so much less confidence in the abilities of their children.

In response to this report, Secretary Spellings stated that she has yet to see evidence of the need for a unified national standard, arguing once again that the states themselves should be responsible for deciding how well their students have to perform in order to qualify as "proficient," never mind the fact that the differences between those standards can equal several grade levels. She seems to believe that, once the individual states have better examined the results captured in these reports, they will, on their own volition, begin to "ratchet up" their standards, "and that will be good for kids." Even those hesitant to speak of a "national curriculum" agree that we cannot accurately measure the success of our various nationwide education initiatives when the states run on such vastly different grading scales. Trusting each state to improve the performance of its students by adjusting its (self-reported) standards on its own best judgement while still forcing each state to work within the universally punitive framework of NCLB is not a feasible plan. Judging by the official reaction to this report, ideas for a fresh approach will not be forthcoming. Who is at fault for these embarrassing deficiencies? Assigning blame is less important than accepting this painfully obvious fact: lowering test standards will only perpetuate the false image of a better-prepared student body, convincing them that they are "proficient" when they are far from it. We can't think of a more counter-productive policy.

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