By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 3, 2006
Many states, including Maryland and Virginia, are reporting student proficiency rates so much higher than what the most respected national measure has found that several influential education experts are calling for a move toward a national testing system.
The growing talk of national testing and standards comes in the fifth year of the No Child Left Behind era. That federal law sought to hold public schools accountable for academic performance but left it up to states to design their own assessments. So the definition of proficiency -- what it means for a student to perform at grade level -- varies from coast to coast.
Maryland recently reported that 82 percent of fourth-graders scored proficient or better in reading on the state's test. The latest data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as "the nation's report card," show 32 percent of Maryland fourth-graders at or above proficiency in reading.
Virginia announced last week that 86 percent of fourth-graders reached that level on its reading test, but the NAEP data show 37 percent at or above proficiency.
Some experts say it's time to be more clear about how well American schoolchildren are doing.
"The more discontented the public is with confusing and dumbed-down standards, the more politically feasible it will be to create national standards of achievement," said Diane Ravitch, a New York University professor who was an assistant U.S. education secretary under President George H.W. Bush.
The political obstacles are formidable, including a long tradition of local control over public education. But the approaching presidential campaign, a pending debate over congressional reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind law and the wide gaps between assessments have raised hopes among proponents that the issue will gain steam. Some say gradual steps toward a national system would be better than none.
A recent study by Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at the University of California at Berkeley, found that states regularly inflate student achievement. In 12 states studied, the percentage of fourth-graders proficient in reading climbed by nearly two percentage points a year, on average.
The NAEP (pronounced "Nape") data show a decline on average in the percentage who were proficient over the same period, Fuller said.
Another Fuller-led study found only three states -- Massachusetts, Missouri and South Carolina -- with proficiency standards that come close to NAEP's. (A similar rating by the journal Education Next showed that D.C. school standards have been stringent. It showed 14 percent of D.C. elementary school children reading proficiently on the D.C. scale and 11 percent on NAEP's.)
Unlike state tests, which are used to help rate public schools and measure achievement of all students in certain grades, NAEP has a more limited mission. It tests selected pools of students in key subject areas to produce data on long-term educational trends.
NAEP standards were designed to establish what students ought to know to do well in the next grade and beyond, said Mark D. Musick, former president of the Southern Regional Education Board, who helped draft them. State standards, he said, more typically reflect what teachers say are the levels good students reach in their classes.
Although classroom experience varies across the country, Musick said, what students should know to be proficient in Algebra I is clear to most educators, and a national test would help set that standard.
The argument over national standards splits both major political parties. Many Republicans defend each state's right to set its own standards, but the Bush administration includes advocates for a stronger federal role.
No Child Left Behind, which President Bush signed into law in 2002, struck a balance: It required a major expansion of state testing programs but left standard-setting authority to the states.
Many Democrats supported President Bill Clinton's effort in the 1990s to encourage national standards, which was blocked by a Republican-led Congress. Other Democrats, particularly those allied with teachers unions, oppose judging schools by standardized tests.
Charles E. Smith, executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees NAEP, said many state officials tell him they are moving toward the national benchmarks.
A senior Maryland education official, for instance, said the state's standards are aligned with some of the NAEP benchmarks. Some, he said, but not all.
"The gaps will generate differences in performance," said Ronald A. Peiffer, Maryland's deputy superintendent for academic policy. "If NAEP were the national test to which all states taught and tested, then there would be no gaps, and I would expect Maryland students to do much better on NAEP."
Last week, the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation released a report from several experts, including advisers to Republican and Democratic administrations, that outlined ways to move toward national standards.
First, the federal government could order a new national testing program. The report said that surely would raise standards but would be unlikely to win congressional approval. Second, Washington could fund an expanded, voluntary national testing system. The report said that probably would raise standards and could be passed.
Third, states could build on efforts to share test items among themselves. That would be less likely to raise standards but politically feasible, the report said. Fourth, the federal government could take steps to ensure that state standards and test results could be easily compared with one another and with NAEP.
The experts in the report include Texas lawyer Sandy Kress and former deputy U.S. education secretary Eugene W. Hickok, both key education advisers to Bush, as well as Ravitch and former Clinton advisers Michael Cohen and Andrew J. Rotherham.
Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Fordham Foundation, a former Reagan administration official and one of the architects of the NAEP standards in 1990, said creating a national test would be difficult. "But I think it's a manageable hurdle, especially with presidential leadership," he said.
"There's an assumption around that national standards are political suicide even if they make educational sense," Finn said. "We need to bust through that."
Musick said he believes the best way to introduce national tests would be in a few high school subjects, such as first- and second-year algebra.
Some educators see comparisons with NAEP as unrealistic. Gerald W. Bracey, an educational psychologist who writes frequently on testing, noted that 1996 NAEP results found only 30 percent of fourth-graders to be proficient or better in science, even though an international study that year ranked American fourth-graders third in science among 26 nations.
Others want to cut back on standardized testing entirely.
Deborah Meier gained fame for starting schools in low-income areas of New York City's Manhattan that had experts rate students by viewing their schoolwork and discussing it with them. The schools did not rely on standardized tests. Instead of a national test, Meier said, the country should adopt "a combination of in-depth local instruments, independent review of schools and student work."
She also said there is value in limited testing to sample student progress.
Skeptics of national testing have long noted the influence of politics on proficiency standards. Put simply, how many kids will voters allow to score below proficiency? Some policymakers are tempted to keep standards low so that schools will look successful; others seek to set them high to spur schools to improve.