Standards, Testing, & Accountability

Too Good to Last: The True Story of Reading First, by Sol Stern, is an in-depth and alarming study of Reading First's betrayal.

President Bush vowed he would "leave no child behind." The centerpiece of his education agenda was Reading First, a new federal program aimed at helping poor children acquire basic reading skills. Under the leadership of White House domestic policy chief Margaret Spellings (then LaMontagne) and with support from Congress, Reading First was to provide funding to primary-reading programs that were based on scientific research. Christopher Doherty became Reading First's new director. His job was to ensure that Reading First schools used only programs that work and shunned those that don't.

Backlash and brouhaha followed. Aggrieved whole-language program proprietors complained bitterly that their wares couldn't be purchased with Reading First funds. They found a receptive ear in the Education Department's Office of the Inspector General (OIG), a bastion of green eyeshade and Dragnet types who weren't the least bit interested in children learning to read. The OIG launched a witch hunt against Doherty, falsely claiming that he was improperly favoring particular publishers. Despite the lack of evidence and the fact that Doherty was acting with the full knowledge and support of Margaret Spellings, this conscientious and hard-working public servant was forced to resign. Then the administration turned its back on Reading First, allowing the program to be gutted and starved of funding.

This report cites the real scandals of Reading First:

  • An influential "progressive" lawmaker, Rep. David Obey,
  • ...

David Hoff reports that Senators Clinton and Obama are calling for new kinds of tests under No Child Left Behind. Obama has more steak to Hillary's sizzle on this one, saying in his education plan that he will support "funds for states to implement a broader range of assessments that can evaluate higher-order skills, including students' abilities to use technology, conduct research, engage in scientific investigation, solve problems, present and defend their ideas. These assessments will provide immediate feedback so that teachers can begin improving student learning right away."

In fact, that might be too much detail. How is an assessment going to measure all of those worthy attributes while also providing feedback to teachers immediately? This isn't just hope-mongering, it's decision-blurring. Either you can provide feedback quickly, but have to stick to easy-to-measure things like reading skills, or you can offer information about critical thinking and the rest, but have to wait for real people to score the tests. (Unless you're comfortable with this Third Way solution.) It's a multiple choice test, Senators, and you can only choose one answer.

The Proficiency Illusion" reveals that the tests that states use to measure academic progress under the No Child Left Behind Act are creating a false impression of success, especially in reading and especially in the early grades.

The report, a collaboration of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and the Northwest Evaluation Association, contains several major findings:

  • States are aiming particularly low when it comes to their expectations for younger children, setting
    elementary students up to fail as they progress through their academic careers.
  • The central flaw in NCLB is that it allows each state to set its own definition of what constitutes "proficiency."
  • By mandating that all students reach "proficiency" by 2014, it tempts states to define proficiency downward.
  • Although there has not been a "race to the bottom," with the majority of states dramatically lowering standards under pressure from NCLB, the report did find a "walk to the middle," as some states with high standards saw their expectations drop toward the middle of the pack.
  • In most states, math tests are consistently more difficult to pass than reading tests.
  • Eighth-grade tests are sharply harder to pass in most states than those in earlier grades (even after taking into account obvious differences in subject-matter complexity and children's academic development).

As a result, students may be performing worse in reading, and worse in elementary school, than is readily apparent by looking at passing rates on state tests.

Individual State Reports

January 8, 2007, is No Child Left Behind's fifth birthday. This isn't just another milestone to be celebrated (or mourned). It also marks the time that the law is due for an update from Congress. But will NCLB be reauthorized on schedule? And what changes are likely? No one knows for sure, but some might be in a better position than others to cast prognostications: the ubiquitous 'Washington insiders.' So we asked for their predictions. While not a 'representative sample' of thousands, these experts do have inside knowledge and bring a variety of perspectives. They span the ideological and political spectrum and work as lobbyists, association leaders, think tank analysts, and scholars.

The Fordham Report 2006: How Well Are States Educating Our Neediest Children? appraises each state according to thirty indicators across three major categories: student achievement for low-income, African-American, and Hispanic students; achievement trends for these same groups over the last 10-15 years; and the state's track record in implementing bold education reforms. It finds that just eight states can claim even moderate success over the past 15 years at boosting the percentage of their poor or minority students who are at or above proficient in reading, math or science. In addition, most states making significant achievement gains--including California, Delaware, Florida, New York, Massachusetts, and Texas--are national leaders in education reform, indicating that solid standards, tough accountability, and greater school choice can yield better classroom results.

Two-thirds of schoolchildren in America attend class in states with mediocre (or worse) expectations for what their students should learn. That's just one of the findings of Fordham's The State of State Standards 2006, which evaluates state academic standards. The average state grade is a "C-minus"--the same as six years earlier, even though most states revised their standards since 2000.

Education policy leaders from across the political spectrum flesh out and evaluate several forms that national standards and testing could take.

Our world is quickly shrinking and becoming evermore interconnected. But is America's K-12 education system preparing students for life in a global village? Unfortunately, it is not. Renowned historian Walter Russell Mead, author of Fordham's The State of State World History Standards 2006, found that thirty-three states deserved D or F grades for their world history standards. States do the worst when it comes to teaching Latin American history. At a time of intense national debate about immigration and assimilation, many states do not seem aware that there are countries and cultures south of the Rio Grande.
 

Science education in America is under attack, with "discovery learning" on one flank and the Discovery Institute on the other. That's the core finding of our just-released comprehensive review of state science standards, the first since 2000. Written by pre-eminent biologist Paul R. Gross, The State of State Science Standards finds that even though the majority of states have reworked, or crafted from scratch, their science standards over the past five years, we're no better off now than before. That's the bad news. The good news is that many of the standards are easily fixed. More involvement by bench scientists, and better editing, could greatly improve what's out there. Plus, there are a number of excellent models to follow (California, Massachusetts, and South Carolina, for example). The public's anxiety about the future of our nation's scientific prowess is palpable—and reasonable. How serious are we in addressing their concerns? To find out, read the report.

Almost every week a new report or commission decries the decline of America's preeminence in science, and calls for the nation's education system to raise standards in order for our economy to remain competitive with the rest of the world. Within this context, the National Assessment Governing Board is preparing to launch a new science assessment for 2009. Curriculum developers and textbook writers are likely to follow its lead. Fordham couldn't help but wonder: is the draft science Framework up to the challenge? Using much the same criteria applied in the Foundation's state science standards reviews, our reviewers answered: no. As author (and esteemed biologist) Paul R. Gross wrote, "The Framework is an interesting start, but there is much work to be done if it is to achieve its potential usefulness."

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