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Welcome to the era of the national standardized test – for real this time

Submitted by on Wednesday, 18 February 2009 No Comment
Did Education Secretary Arne Duncan just accomplish in mere weeks what the past two presidents couldn't pull off in 16 years?

Look deep into a Tuesday New York Times article, far below all the "gee, isn't it great to have $100 billion to spend" puffery, and it appears that Duncan has created a national test that matters.

The result: Another session in the testing pressure cooker every year for fourth-, eighth-, and 12th-graders, this time with an exam where all students in the best-educated country in the world can't even achieve proficiency.

The test has been around for decades - it's the National Assessment of Educational Progress. It's just never meant anything to individual schools.

Bill Clinton backed down in 1997 from making the test voluntary nationwide in the face of criticism from the  Christian Coalition, the National Education Association and virtually everyone else.

The right doesn't like it because it makes education standards national - that's the state's job, they believe. At least until it comes to No Child Left Behind.

The left doesn't like it because of the cultural and racial bias in many standardized tests.

After Clinton's crash and burn, George W. Bush didn't even try to work NAEP into No Child Left Behind .

Then along comes Duncan with money to burn and no set system for awarding a lot of it.

Here are a few hints, though, all from The Times article:

  • "Duncan said he intended to reward school districts, charter schools and nonprofit organizations that had demonstrated success at raising student achievement — 'islands of excellence,' he called them. Programs that tie teacher pay to classroom performance will most likely receive money."

No surprise there. Duncan's long been a fan of charter schools and merit pay.

  • “We have states that tell the public that 90 percent of kids are meeting state standards, but when we look at how they’re doing on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, it’s nowhere close," Duncan said. "I’m not going to reward that. I want to be transparent about the good, bad and the ugly.”

The sound you just heard was the stampede of state school superintendents rushing to figure out a way to game NAEP.

It's not entirely possible, because NAEP is a much tougher test. "Simply put, NAEP's standard for proficiency is set at a level we want every student to reach, while states set their standard for proficiency at a level we expect every student to reach," the nonprofit Center for Public Education says.

But there's wiggle room. They can do that they always do, which is order teachers to teach the test. Most of the magic is in the sample size, though.

In 2007, 502,000 fourth- eighth- and 12th-graders were tested, as best as can be determined from the NAEP Web site. But there are more than 6 million public school students in California alone. Obviously, the voluntary test misses a lot of kids.

Have a weak school in your district or a weak district in your state? Opt out, but make sure the stronger school takes it. Remember, it's voluntary. Participation of individual schools is so low that NAEP doesn't release scores at that level.

So Duncan is going to reward schools based on a test that's not broken down that far. Or will he merely reward his "islands of excellence" based on some other criteria but hammer states as a whole?

The irony about charter schools: In the one in-depth comparison of charter versus regular schools on NAEP, the charter schools lagged.

Duncan has a valid point. Because states set their own standards under NCLB, there are huge differences in what's expected. Yearly state NAEP results clearly show differences as well in what's achieved, though some educators will argue that that's because their curriculum aren't aligned with NAEP. In more cynical words, that they're not as proficient at teaching the test.

So how does Duncan make NAEP the new hammer? The obvious answer is by pressuring states to participate. In this budget climate, they'll be easy marks. In this era of testing our way to accountability, much of the public will buy into it, too. Except for the minority that would rather have their fingernails pulled off with white-hot tweezers than subject children to yet another test.

No, Duncan can't force a national test, any more than Congress could enact a national speed limit or seat-belt law. But Congress could sure stick the screws to states by threatening to cut highway funding if they didn't play along.

Either Duncan stuck his foot in it up to his hip during the Times interview or he's been studying that playbook.

Copyright 2009 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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