Thursday, October 29, 2009

Measuring the Race to the Bottom

I've written extensively about the Race to the Bottom that is created by aspects of NCLB where states' performance is measured by how well each state meets its own targets. I've also pointed out that individual states participating in this race to the bottom are not particularly keen on having transparent ways to compare their standards with other states.

The National Center for Education Statistics (part of the Department of Education) has found a way to use data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress along side state accountability reports to actually examine and quantify any Race to the Bottom. In a new report, Mapping State Proficiency Standards Onto NAEP Scales: 2005-2007, they have looked at changes from 2005 to 2007 in state scores and how they compare with the national measure. The report looks at reading and math in the 4th and 8th grades.

A word about proficiency

The NEAP makes a distinction between a basic level and a proficient level of performance. For the NEAP proficient means competency over challenging subject matter and not merely grade-level performance. Most (all?) states also make a distinction on their state accountability tests. When talking about the TAKS test in Texas, the word proficient is often used to refer to the minimum passing requirement and the term commended is used to describe the higher level.

In Texas, parents will hear the word proficient to refer to the minimum standard of passing the TAKS. That is not how the word is used nationally. And it is not how I will use it here. I will try to avoid confusion where I can. But I suspect that the Texan use of the word proficiency is a form of grade inflation attempting to make families feel that, as in Lake Wobegon, in Texas all children are above average.

Comparison among states

The report compares state standards for the proficiency level (not the basic level). That is, this report, when it comes to Texas is looked at the level needed to score a commended TAKS result. It worked to determine what the NEAP cut-off would be for getting a commended result on the 4th and 8th grade math and reading TAKS. It did this for each state for which there was sufficient data. This allows us to compare the proficiency levels from state to state.

In 2007 data Texas falls below the national average in its commended levels for 4th and 8th grade math and reading. For Texas is fourth from the bottom in 8th grade reading, beating out only North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee. (Note that DC, Nebraska and Utah weren't included in this measure due to insufficient data.) For 8th grade math, Texas is near the middle of the pack. For 4th grade reading and math, Texas falls near the top of the bottom third.

States with higher proficiency (commended) standards have few students meeting those standards. There should be no surprise there. This leads to the question of whether it matters at all where states set their proficiency standards. Remember that proficiency standards are higher than the basic standards which all students are expected to meet. It turns out that states that set their own higher proficiency standards appear to get better results on the national NAEP exams. Whether the setting of higher standards is the cause of those higher scores is unknown. It should be noted that this relationship is much less pronounced for 8th grade reading, where it is not statistically significant.

Comparison over time

The question we asked with respect to any race to the bottom is whether states are lowering their own standards over time. The rest of the report concerns comparing 2005 and 2007 data. Getting the comparisons is mathematically tricky and so is the statistical inferencing. The report discusses their techniques in great detail, which I have yet to carefully review.

For each of 4th and 8th grade math and reading, they did two kinds of comparisons. The first is simply looking at the NEAP scores corresponding to the commended cut-offs has changed from 2005 to 2007. In this, Texas had no real change in 4th or 8th grade reading or 4th grade math (there was a decline in NEAP points, but that was within the margin of error for the analysis). But for 8th grade math there was a statistically meaningful decline of 4.2 points on the NEAP scale.

The report also looked at change in state standards in another way. If a state had a large increase in the number of students reaching the commended (proficient) level from 2005 to 2007 but did not have such a large (or any) increase in numbers of students improving on the NEAP.

Using this measure Texas students showed significantly more improvement on the Texas tests than on the national tests in 4th grade reading, 4th grade math, and 8th grade math.

Are the state standards getting easier

The pattern of change describe for Texas can be seen in many states (while other states are going in other directions). But does this means that states are lowering their standards in a race to the bottom? It certainly could mean that, but I suspect that this is more a consequence of schools getting better at preparing students for the state tests.

Schools are teaching test taking skills that are geared to the state tests. They are providing hot breakfasts on test days, they are perfecting their ways of motivating students and families to perform well on these tests. And with the actual teaching of content, there may be an increase in teaching to the test. A great deal of these efforts to improve state test scores will not carry over to the NEAP tests. The state accountability tests are very high stakes tests for the schools, while the NEAP tests have little direct consequence for the students, teachers or schools.

So schools will be engaging in activities that improve state test performance but do little for NEAP tests. This way we can see the results reported without it meaning that states are formally lowering their standards. Of course, if I am right about this, it means that we should be even more skeptical of improvements in state test results. It doesn't reflect a real increase in learning, but instead improvements in taking the state tests.