- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 7, 2007

A study of state tests since the No Child Left Behind Act became law finds that “passing” scores vary “wildly” from state to state, making it harder to truly measure progress.

Numerous states set the bar higher in math than in reading, and some aim “precipitously low in elementary school,” which causes problems for students later on, according to the study released Sept. 28 by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

“It means big trouble, and those who care about strengthening … education should be furious,” wrote Chester E. Finn Jr. and Michael J. Petrilli, scholars at the institute.

The Fordham report was released as lawmakers on Capitol Hill are trying to negotiate the renewal of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The 2002 law requires states to test and track students, with the goal of grade-level proficiency in reading and math by 2014.

But the law allows each state to set standards and define proficiency — which is turning out to be a big problem, the report’s authors argued.

“It’s crazy not to have some form of national standards for educational achievement,” Mr. Finn and Mr. Petrilli wrote in the report’s foreword. “That doesn’t mean Uncle Sam should set them, but if Uncle Sam is going to push successfully for standards-based reform, he cannot avoid the responsibility of ensuring that they get set.”

But some countered that’s exactly the way to ensure standards remain low.

“As long as government controls education, political forces will ensure that standards stay low and easy to meet,” Neal McCluskey, education-policy analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute, wrote in response. “It is, simply, the absolutely inescapable conclusion one reaches after examining the history of public schooling generally, and the 40-plus years of federal involvement.”

The Fordham report examined 26 states, comparing data from students who took both their state test and the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) test to determine what a child had to score on the NWEA scale in order to pass the state test.

The researchers found that state tests vary widely in difficulty. Colorado’s third-grade math standards, for example, correspond to just the sixth percentile on the NWEA, while Massachusetts’ fourth-grade math standards correspond to the 77th percentile on the NWEA.

Among the states studied, Colorado, Michigan and Wisconsin generally had the lowest proficiency standards in reading, and those three states plus Illinois had the lowest standards in math.

The report also found that math standards were higher than reading standards in the “vast majority” of states studied — meaning that a proficient score in math was more difficult to meet than a proficient score in reading.

Finally, the report found that eighth-grade reading and math tests were “consistently and dramatically” harder to pass than those in the earlier grades, even after considering obvious differences in subject complexity and academic development.

The whole rationale for standards-based reform was that it would make expectations for student learning more rigorous and uniform, the report concludes. “Judging by the findings of this study, we are as far from that objective as ever.”

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