Saturday, March 14, 2009

Stopping the Race to the Bottom

In his March 10, 2009 speech on education, President Obama called on states to stop the "race to the bottom" with respect to educational proficiency standards. I will be proposing here a simple, inexpensive measure which will help stop that race to the bottom.

Race to the bottom

The race to the bottom is a simple consequence of the fact that politicians want parents to be happy about their children's achievements and these same politicians directly or indirectly control the proficiency standards. Setting standards low allows parents to be truthfully told that their children are exceeding standards. Furthermore, the national No Child Left Behind program specifically penalizes schools and districts which fail to meet their state standards, so again states are given a financial incentives to keep standards low.

I've argued elsewhere that there is a place for minimum standards, but those minimum standards should not be the reference point by which we measure our children's academic growth and achievements. So in this post I will make one small proposal that a district like PISD can do to meet the President's challenge and help families and the community focus on achievement beyond the minimum standard.

Some MAP background

In the elementary grades, the Plano Independent School District (Texas) uses the excellent MAP testing system developed by the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA). This test has many virtues which I will try to discuss in more detail other posts. But one virtue is that it is scored on an "equal interval scale" which means that a 5 point gain one year is comparable to a 5 point gain in another year. This makes the system ideal for measuring progress and changes in progress over time. Plano helpfully provides these charts (which they call "Learning Growth Charts" to parents during parent-teacher conferences on through the parent information system website. Here is a sample The orange line is the student's scores for the tests taken at different times. The band below it is what Plano ISD calls a "proficiency range." The MAP test can be given in the Fall, Winter and/or Spring during each school year, and the time marks along the bottom of the graph are the grade and season testing dates Most parents will see their children's lines well above the proficiency range and be pleased with the school and the district.

The problem

What parents aren't told very clearly is that the proficiency range is really just the range of scores near the TAKS passing estimates, and so in Texas, it is a very low range indeed. (More on just how low that is later). The whole system is rigged to conceal just how low the proficiency range really is, and to make (most) parents happy by exaggerating how well their children are doing.

But by making a (legitimate) minimum standard the reference point by which our kids' achievements and progress are measured we lower our goals and become satisfied with things that we really shouldn't be satisfied with.

A solution

One very simple solution to this very specific problem is to include the national (not state) norms for student scores on the same chart. This would allow parents to see how their child's achievements compare nationally and also show how the state proficiency level compares to the national average performance.

So there I propose a simple approach that could be implemented cheaply and easily for districts that already provide scores for tests with national data. Other districts, when the report students' performance against their own states proficiency measures can find ways to make clear where those standards stand against other state's standards and against national performance data.

Despite the simplicity and affordability of this proposal, I anticipate that people will find ways to resist this proposal. I intend to ask all of the candidates running for the PISD school board to comment on this. It will be interesting to see responses.

For comparison

The NWEA publishes national norm data (PDF) for the MAP, but I haven't been able to find information on the variance. They've also looked at scores on the MAP and seen which students passed the TAKS, thus being able to estimate just how hard or easy the TAKS is. I haven't been able to find the full report for Texas, but the summary (PDF) show that for many tests, a passing score on the TAKS puts the student around the 30th percentile nationally. For third grade reading, the apparent TAKS cut-off puts the child at the 12th percentile nationally.

Again, let me make it clear that I do think that there is a real role for (low) minimum standards which every child should meet. My proposal here isn't to raise those minimum standards, but to encourage parents, schools, politicians and children to focus on higher standards as well.

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