Monday, June 11, 2007

Unifying State Standards

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) released a report last week aligning scores state assessment scores with the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP). The analysis reveals striking differences in standards from state to state:

For example, an eighth grader in Tennessee can meet that state’s standards for math proficiency with a state test score that is the equivalent of a 230 on the national test. But in Missouri, an eighth grader would need the equivalent of a 311.

And while a Mississippi fourth grader can meet the state’s reading proficiency standard with a state score that corresponds to a 161 on the national test, a Massachusetts fourth grader would need the equivalent of a 234. Such score differences represent a gap of several grade levels. (NY Times)

Since the US Constitution assigns states the responsibility of educating our children, the authors of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), now known as the No child Left Behind Act (NCLB), allowed states to determine curriculum and set standards of achievement, but such wide variation in the resulting expectations for what constitutes an adequate education has prompted some to question whether the current mechanisms for defining academic proficiency are sufficient to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century. Although ESEA was intended to improve the quality of education for poor and minority students, NCLB provides little incentive for states to ratchet up the stakes in terms of their definitions of academic adequacy: If many local schools are already having difficulty in getting all of their students to pass the state proficiency examinations with standards such as they are, states are not likely to increase standards and risk even more schools facing negative consequences for failing to make adequate progress toward universal proficiency.

In an attempt to entice states to increase curricular standards, the Senate passed a bill last April that would, among other things, appropriate $100 million to provide grants to states to identify the skills students would need to succeed without remediation in higher education, the work force, and the Armed Services, and to determine the necessary changes to their curriculum to equip high school graduates with these skills (S.761, sec. 3401). While the bill's intention is admirable, the law would do little to ensure that states come to similar conclusions about the rigor of these skills for success.

Another bill before congress goes slightly further toward this goal by charging the NAEP Assessment Board with creating or adopting K-12 content standards that "reflect a common core of what students in the United States should know and be able to do to compete in a global economy" (S.224, H.R.325). These national standards would then be voluntarily adopted by states who accept a grant from the federal government to that end. Grants would be awarded up to $4 million per state over four years. While this bill has the potential to make great strides in directing our educational systems toward unity in academic expectations and would likely increase standards of proficiency, the money available as a carrot for states seems rather meager: $200 million spread over 53 million students gives less than $4/student--barely a dent in what it would cost to revamp a nation's curriculum, in terms of new textbooks, assessments, and professional development. The figure seems even less appealing when compared with the non-financial costs higher standards would levy due to the needs of NCLB.

What, then, can encourage states to raise the bar, not only of 100% proficiency but of proficiency itself? In the absence of a federal takeover of education, which require no less than a constitutional amendment, local citizens will have to petition their state governments, demanding a higher-quality education for our children. NCLB has made great strides in increasing the data available to parents and community members about the performance of every school; now that the NCES has mapped state assessment scales with NAEP, NCLB could be amended in the upcoming reauthorization to requires that schools report scores in terms of both state and national scales. While this reporting by itself wouldn't improve schools, it would give communities an idea of how their schools fare in comparison with the rest of the nation, hopefully fueling grassroots efforts to implement effectual change for educational improvement.

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