How test scores can be deceiving

Consider this: On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the test that is commonly referred to as “the nation’s report card,” Massachusetts students performed so well that the state ranked No. 1 in the nation.

Sounds good, right? Then consider this:

Massachusetts ranks in the bottom tier of states in progress toward closing the achievement gap for black, Hispanic, and low-income students, and, in fact, has some of the widest gaps in the nation between white and Hispanic students.

This is explained in a new report called “Twenty Years After Education Reform,” just released by Citizens for Public Schools in Massachusetts, a 31-year-old nonprofit dedicated to improving public education. The report looks back on the effects of the 1993 Education Reform Act, passed 20 years ago this month in the state, asking this central question: “Are we closer to our goal of equitable access to a high-quality education for every student?”

The authors conclude that two of the three major reforms launched since the law was passed have “failed to deliver on their promises.” What are they? High-stakes testing and Commonwealth charter schools. The third, a school funding formula designed to further the cause of equity in education, brought in more than $2 billion in state funding to public schools, but is now outdated and needs to be revamped. (It, for example, understates special education costs by $1 billion and has not adjusted for the growth of health insurance costs, the report says.)

In regard to standardized test scores — the metric that school reformers have chosen to use to hold students, schools, teachers and districts accountable for student progress — achievement gaps remain large, based “based on race, poverty, ethnicity, language and special needs, with some gaps stagnant and some increasing,” the report says.

* The school districts with the highest scores on the 2012 10th grade MCAS [Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System] English test had low-income student populations ranging from two to nine percent, while the ten lowest scoring districts had percentages ranging from 50 to 87 percent.

 

* On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, though our average results place us at the top of all states, Massachusetts ranks in the bottom tier of states in progress toward closing the achievement gap for black, Hispanic, and low-income students.  Massachusetts has some of the widest gaps in the nation between White and Hispanic students, a sign that the English immersion policy created by the Unz initiative has failed.

 

*Massachusetts ranks 31 st of 49 states for the gap between black and white student graduation rates (with 1st meaning that the gap is the smallest) and 39th of 47 states for  the size of the gap between Hispanic and White student graduation rates. For students  with disabilities, Massachusetts’ four – year graduation rate is only 64.9 percent, which ranks the state at 28th out of the 45 states with available data in 2009.2  A significant reason for this low figure is the impact of the MCAS graduation requirement on this subgroup.

Furthermore, it says, surveys of teachers in the state as well as national research have shown that test preparation has contributed to the narrowing of school curricula, most severely in districts with a large proportion of students from low-income families.

Meanwhile, the report says that the growth of Commonwealth public charter schools has done nothing to promote equity of educational quality and resources and has failed to spark “innovation,” as supporters believed would happen.

Urban charters have gravitated toward a single approach known as “no excuses,” which translates to long hours in school, highly precise rules for behavior, and severe discipline for breaking even minor rules, such as wearing the wrong color socks.

Furthermore, it says that many urban charter schools report “very high” school suspension rates and higher attrition rates than traditional public schools, and that the average Massachusetts charter loses “one third to one half of its teacher staff each year.” The state average ranges from 13 to 22 percent, depending on the poverty level of a school’s student population.

Among the recommendations in the report:

* A revamping of the school funding formula and an increase in funding
* A moratorium on the high accountability stakes linked to standardized tests
* A moratorium on the approval of new, or expansion of existing, charter schools until retention and attrition problems are resolved.
* Broaden the curriculum

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · June 13, 2013