Sunday, October 7, 2007

Dum and Dumed Down

As discussed previously, eighth-graders in Illinois made significant gains on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT) for reading and math, with 82 percent passing the reading exam. Incredibly, these gains were not reflected in the results of the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Indeed, there was a decline in in the number of eighth-graders passing the test versus previous years, with only 30 percent passing this year, versus 35 percent in 2003.

All of this takes on significance as student proficiency is a key component of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). The Adequate Yearly Progress requirements of NCLB dictate that schools improve their percentage of students achieving "proficiency" in math and reading. According to a study from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute entitled "The Proficiency Illusion", many states - to include Illinois - have watered down their proficiency tests such that "improvements in passing rates on state tests can largely be explained by declines in the difficulty of those tests." In their examination of the proficiency tests of 26 states, the researchers found that...

...the primary factor explaining improvement in student proficiency rates in many states is a decline in the test's estimated cut [passing] score. Half of the reported improvement in reading, and 70 percent of the reported improvement in mathematics, appear idiosyncratic to the state test... [T]hese declines raise questions about whether the NCLB-era achievement gains reported by many states represent true growth in student learning.
For its part, Illinois was found to have decreased its reading proficiency cut scores for third- and eighth-graders between 2003 and 2006. The magnitude of the changes was such that they "would likely yield increases in the third-grade reading proficiency rate by 17 percent and in the eighth-grade reading proficiency rate by 14 percent." Similarly, the state was shown to have decreased its math proficiency cutoff such that proficiency increases of eight percent and 27 percent would be seen for fifth-graders and eighth-graders respectively. (The study notes that between 2003 and 2006, Illinois reported gains in reading proficiency of nine points for third-graders and 16 points for eighth-graders, as well as gains in math proficiency of 10 points for fifth-graders and 25 points for eighth-graders.)

The foregoing dovetails well with an commentary on 2003 NAEP math and reading scores for black and Hispanic fourth- and eighth-graders in nine urban areas. Abigail Thernstrom's analysis controlled for the impact of poverty (as represented by eligibility for free school lunch programs) and found poverty by itself could not explain inter-district variances in student NAEP performance. The above graphic depicts NAEP math scores of black fourth- and eighth-graders by eligibility for federal lunch programs, and indicates that variances between higher performing districts (such as Houston and New York) and low-performing districts (such as the perennial underdog, Washington, D.C.) overwhelm differences based on relative household income, and approach the differences in scores seen between black and white students.

It becomes more and more evident - even to the indolent observer - that schools matter. School districts that take accountability seriously will produce results accordingly. The sad fact is that most districts typically spend more time trying to evade accountability than they do on trying to improve the performance of academically disadvantaged students. By now, such is to be expected, as schools are more beholden to teachers and their unions than to the end users of their services. As long as government-run schools are able to evade the effects of competition, these types of disparities in educational outcome will continue apace.

1 comment:

Tom Hanson said...

I found the most interesting aspect of this discussion the comments of Michael Petrelli, the VP for policy at Fordham, that even though the math tests are harder, scores are improving more in math than in reading. See:

Tom Hanson