"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

"Can you really boil it down to a number?"

Michael Winerip with the New York Times is a rare commodity in education reporting: he offers a context for his stories, he doesn't insult the intelligence of his readers, and he writes in a way that suggests he is not just killing time until he is promoted to where the real news is.

In today's piece, he opens up a discussion on the wide discrepancies between state test scores and the recent NAEP data. Why are are state test scores so much lower? Why is there so much variation from state to state? And what does it all mean?

Simply put, state test scores vary greatly because each state has devised its own strategy to somehow achieve the impossible goal of 100% proficiency by 2014, as required by NCLB. Some states place more of the impossibility on the front end, making their Adequate Yearly Progess (AYP) percentage scores lower today in comparison to other states; while others, being smarter and praying that the ridiculous requirement will be changed in '07, put the heavy lifting further down the road toward 2014, thus making their AYP percentages appear very high now in comparison to other states . That is how Alabama, choosing to delay the day of doom or eventually avoid it altogether, achieved adequate yearly progress (AYP) at over 80% in 2003, while North Carolina decided to spread out the pain, thus achieving less than 50% AYP in 2003. Are Alabama's students performing that much better than North Carolina's? Of course not.

Here is how Bob Linn, former President of the American Education Research Association, described Ohio's AYP strategy in his 2003 report, Accountability: Responsibility and Reasonable Expectations:
The rationale provided for spacing AYP increments farther apart in the early years than in the later years is that reforms take time to put in place, and therefore improvement is to be expected to take longer in the early years after the reform has been in place. Although there is a good deal of evidence from past test-based accountability systems that the gains are actually larger in the first few years than in subsequent years, the Ohio plan has considerable appeal on pragmatic grounds. A huge challenge of NCLB is for states to get through the first few years without
placing an overwhelming number of schools in the needs improvement category. Buying time allows for the possibility that the law will be modified to make progress targets more realistically achievable. It is important for states to find ways to buy time with their plans for meeting NCLB requirements, and the Ohio plan is, in my view, a creative way of doing that.
And what if NCLB is not changed in 2007? Well, the failure rate will continue to escalate, creating more "failing schools" and leaving those early losers (the poor and the brown) on the failing list and, thus, ripe for takeover by the corporate welfare charter industry that the Department of Education supports as the final solution for public schools. Remember Social Security privatization?

Here is what Bob Linn prophetically said earlier in
2005 about the inevitable confusion that we are seeing now, as worried parents begin to focus more on all the different test scores, trying to figure out what it all means:
Test-based accountability has become a pervasive consideration for schools and educators as a consequence of the combination of state accountability requirements and those imposed by NCLB. Because of the substantial differences in state and NCLB requirements, mixed messages that are confusing to the public are being given about school performance. The goals established under NCLB are already unrealistic for many schools that started with low performance in 2002 and will become increasing so, not only for those schools but for all schools as the increases in AYP targets occur, especially in 2005 and 2008 when many states will have big jumps in their AYP targets. If the goal for 2013–2014 remains unchanged, essentially all schools will fail to meet the unrealistic goal of100% proficient or above, and No Child Left Behind will have turned into No School Succeeding. . . .

The NCLB insistence on a common target for all schools, regardless of where they started, is appealing in the sense that it sets the same high expectations for all, but is nonetheless counterproductive when it leaves schools with initially low performing students with no realistic hope of making the absolute target. Schools demonstrating substantial improvement should not be labeled as failing to make adequate progress . . . .
Holding schools accountable for the performance of students in subgroups that have too often been ignored in the past (e.g., racial/ethnic minorities, economically disadvantaged, limited English proficient students, and students with disabilities) is a desirable feature of NCLB. As it is implemented, however, it places large, diverse schools at a substantial disadvantage.
Disadvantaging the disadvantaged? I'm afraid so. Underneath the lofty rhetoric of leaving no child behind is a crass and cynical ploy to use the inevitable failure of the poor to broadly seed a schooling alternative that remains public only in the sense that taxpayers will continue to pay the bills while corporate managers walk away with a profit. In the meantime, school becomes a job based on making production, and it doesn't much matter how that production gets done--nor does it matter just what it all means because meaning, by then, will have been excised.

Jim Horn

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