Delusions of mediocrity

 

Media attention of the Fordham Institute and Northwest Evaluation Association's new report, The Proficiency Illusion, had politicians lecturing and education officials in Washington, D.C. and state capitals wringing their hands and circling the wagons earlier this month. The report, released October 4, criticized the way states measure what our children need to learn in school and highlighted the potpourri of standards for proficiency on state achievement exams.

The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and other dailies paid attention (see here and here), as did many Ohio newspapers (see here and here). But the best line may have come from the Journal Times in Wisconsin: "It used to be that even if Wisconsin students didn't score well, parents and people concerned about education could comfort themselves with the notion that at least Wisconsin's performance was above the national average, that even our poorest students were still pretty good.

"That's apparently not the case. Like some twisted version of Garrison Keillor's mythical Lake Woebegone, we have created a Wisconsin where the women may be strong and the men good-looking but all the children are below average."

State education officials in Ohio and elsewhere immediately went on the defensive. These bureaucrats have to navigate between the Scylla and Charybdis of No Child Left Behind--they are tasked with setting high academic standards and are subject to the fallout when those standards aren't met. In Ohio, officials attempted to undermine the report's methodology rather than use it as an impetus for a real conversation about improving the measurement of academic performance.

At the state board of education meeting the week after the report's release, officials discounted the Fordham report and instead highlighted a June report by the U.S. Department of Education that mapped state proficiency standards in reading and math onto the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scale. Ohio fared slightly better in that analysis but by no means earned bragging rights when it comes to the rigor of our assessments--Fordham's report ranked Ohio near the bottom of the 26 states surveyed while the feds put Ohio in the middle of a 32-state group.

At the same meeting, education department staff presented data about student performance on the Ohio Achievement Test and the NAEP. They were careful to keep results from the two tests on separate slides, likely because the state's passing rates on its own assessments are vastly higher than on the NAEP. Ohio policymakers should have heeded the advice of the federal education department, which, after the release of The Proficiency Illusion called on states to post their scores side-by-side with the NAEP to "paint an accurate picture for parents and the public as to how students are achieving."

In Ohio, that picture would show that while an impressive 80 percent of fourth graders passed the state's reading test last year, only 36 percent passed the NAEP. In fourth-grade math, 76 percent of students passed the Ohio test and only 46 percent passed the NAEP. Ohio's students are making progress, as evidenced by both state and national assessments. But the state's definition of "proficient" is certainly inflated when compared to the "gold standard" NAEP. Parents, educators, and policymakers in the Buckeye State deserve to know this.

Taken together, this information ought to stimulate Ohio education officials and politicians to go beyond talking about the knowledge and skills our children really need and how to attain them. The Achieve recommendations (see here) are a good start, calling for identifying real college- and work-readiness standards for graduation and mapping standards backwards through the lower grades--and setting proficiency cut scores at a level that means something.

There is indication that the General Assembly has the resolve to move this work forward. Last week, Senate education committee members asked tough, thoughtful questions of State Superintendent Susan Tave Zelman about the Achieve report. Democrats and Republicans made it clear that they want to be part of developing the legislative recommendations that come out of this report. Let's hope the State Board of Education keeps pushing the Achieve agenda and that lawmakers join them to improve the state's accountability system.

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