Saturday, November 14, 2009

MOST KIDS LEFT BEHIND + FEDERAL RESEARCHERS FIND LOWER STANDARDS IN SCHOOLS: New evidence shows that the Bush administration's famous "No Child Left Behind" education law creates standards that aren't really standards, with unfair and exasperating outcomes for the nation's students.


Most Kids Left Behind

By Dick Lilly | (Seattle)

November 13, 2009. | For those still uncertain why changes to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act — birthed in 2001 as the No Child Left Behind Act by the Bush administration and, disappointingly, Ted Kennedy — were a bad idea, a recent story Federal Researchers Find Lower Standards in Schools (follows) in the New York Times provides the answer.

What No Child Left Behind did was allow each state to set its own standards for proficiency in reading and math at fourth and eighth grade. It also set out a timeline (by 2014, with progress benchmarks every year along the way) for states to get 100 percent of students to proficiency in those subjects or face penalties on a continuum from some loss of funding to mandatory reorganization of the underachieving schools. (All the bad teachers would lose their jobs, so that idea sounds pretty cool to some.)

But if you started with a low bar in the first place, then your progress easily looks pretty good and you avoid penalties. Conversely, if you set an honest standard for proficiency on your state test (ours is the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, or WASL) then it is harder to make the required progress. The result is that better schools in tougher states and districts are penalized sooner and more severely than weak schools in states with low standards.

Sam Dillon’s New York Times article reports a study by the federal Department of Education covering 2005 and 2007 data from the National Assessment of Student Progress (NAEP), a test that has been given across the country to a representative sample of students in grades 4, 8 and 12 every two years since the early 1970s. Thus it provides a tool for comparing the relative difficulty — or proficiency levels — of different states’ tests.

The range is shocking. It takes an NAEP score of approximately 230 to be considered proficient in fourth-grade reading in Massachusetts, the state with the toughest test. In Mississippi, which has the lowest standard, educators think they’ve done their jobs if their fourth-graders score only 125 on the same test. The Department of Education mavens say fourth-grade reading proficiency takes a score of 208.

“We’re lying to our children,” says Education Secretary Arne Duncan, quoted by Dillon.

We sure are in the 32 states whose standards are lower than the NAEP’s. And that includes Washington, where fourth-grade readers are deemed proficient at a score just above 200, about the middle of states nationally. Oregon’s kids are declared proficient at about 185.

How on earth could federal officials ever think it fair to base Title I funding (low-income student enrollment compensation) and even school closures on failure to make progress against such inconsistent standards? The Seattle School District came close to the ultimate sanction against a couple of its schools, but can anyone really think they’re turning out weaker readers than their counterparts in rural Mississippi?

Under No Child, standards aren’t really standards, and the variation among states looks like proof that state education bureaucracies often act in their own interests; that's not necessarily in the best interest of the nation’s kids.

Kids in Washington and Oregon — all states — deserve an education that gets them to a recognized national, even international, standard. The NAEP provides a lot better benchmark than the WASL and its ilk.

Dick Lilly served on the Seattle School Board from 2001-05 and earlier covered the Seattle Public Schools as a reporter for The Seatle Times. You can reach him in care of

The New York Times

October 30, 2009

Federal Researchers Find Lower Standards in Schools


A new federal study shows that nearly a third of the states lowered their academic proficiency standards in recent years, a step that helps schools stay ahead of sanctions under the No Child Left Behind law. But lowering standards also confuses parents about how children’s achievement compares with those in other states and countries.

The study, released Thursday, was the first by the federal Department of Education’s research arm to use a statistical comparison between federal and state tests to analyze whether states had changed their testing standards.

It found that 15 states lowered their proficiency standards in fourth- or eighth-grade reading or math from 2005 to 2007. Three states, Maine, Oklahoma and Wyoming, lowered standards in both subjects at both grade levels, the study said.

Eight states increased the rigor of their standards in one or both subjects and grades. Some states raised standards in one subject but lowered them in another, including New York, which raised the rigor of its fourth-grade-math standard but lowered the standard in eighth-grade reading, the study said.

“Over all, standards were more likely to be lower than higher,” in 2007, compared with the earlier year, said Peggy G. Carr, an associate commissioner at the department.

Under the No Child law, signed in 2002, all schools must bring 100 percent of students to the proficient level on states’ reading and math tests by 2014, and schools that fall short of rising annual targets face sanctions. In California, for instance, elementary schools must raise the percentage of students scoring above the proficient level by 11 percentage points every year from now through 2014.

Facing this challenge, the study found that some states had been redefining proficiency down, allowing a lower score on a state test to qualify as proficient.

“At a time when we should be raising standards to compete in the global economy, more states are lowering the bar than raising it,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement. “We’re lying to our children.”

The 15 states that lowered one or more standards were Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wyoming. Eight that raised one or more standards were Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Missouri, Montana, New York, North Carolina, and Virginia.

Louis Fabrizio, a director at the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, said that under the No Child law, states face a dilemma. “When you set standards, do you want to show success under N.C.L.B. by having higher percentages of students at proficiency, in which case you’ll set lower standards?” Mr. Fabrizio asked. “Or do you want to do the right thing for kids, by setting them higher so they’re comparable with our global competitors?”

In the study, researchers compared the results of state tests and the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2005 and 2007, identifying a score on the national assessment that was equivalent to each state’s definition of proficiency.

The study found wide variation among states, with standards highest in Massachusetts and South Carolina. Georgia, Oklahoma and Tennessee had standards that were among the lowest.

Forty-eight states are working cooperatively to create common academic standards. Authorities in Texas and Alaska declined to join the effort.

Russ Whitehurst, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said it was unlikely that the effort would soon produce a nationwide system that would allow parents and employers to easily compare test results from state to state, partly, he said, because “states would still have to agree on a common test.”

“And that’s heavy lifting,” Mr. Whitehurst said.

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