A Test Everyone Will Fail

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By Gerald W. Bracey
Thursday, May 3, 2007

The world of education is a world of tests these days. But why should tests be only for students? Here's one for policymakers, politicians and adults in general. Bet you don't pass.

The National Assessment Governing Board defined the "proficient" rating on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the nation's report card, as the level that "all students should reach." (The other levels are "basic" and "advanced"; the proficient and advanced levels are often reported together as "proficient or better.") Given that, and given that Sweden was the top-ranked country among 35 in the most recent international reading study, answer the following:

1. If Swedish fourth-graders sat for our National Assessment of Educational Progress reading test, what proportion of them would be labeled "proficient or better"?

2. If Singaporean eighth-graders sat for our NAEP science test, what proportion would be labeled "proficient or better"?

3. In the Third International Mathematics and Science Study of 1995, where did American fourth-graders rank in science among the 26 participating nations?

4. What percentage of American fourth-graders were labeled "proficient or better" in the 1996 NAEP science assessment?

5. What indicators of achievement have been rejected by the Government Accountability Office; the National Academy of Sciences; the National Academy of Education; and the Center for Research on Evaluation, Student Standards and Testing?

6. What are the first words in set-off text that one encounters in the "Leaders and Laggards" report released in February by the Center for American Progress and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce?

Here are the answers:

1. Thirty-three percent.

2. Fifty-one percent.

3. Third.

4. Twenty-nine percent.

5. The NAEP achievement levels: basic, proficient and advanced.

6. "The measures of our educational shortcomings are stark indeed; most 4th and 8th graders are not proficient in either reading or mathematics."

By comparing the results of foreign students and American students on tests administered in both nations, and then examining the American students' scores on the U.S. NAEP, it is possible to reliably estimate how well foreign students would perform on the NAEP.

And it turns out that only one-third of those high-flying Swedish kids would be considered proficient readers; the NAEP figure for U.S. fourth-graders was 29 percent. The great majority of the remaining countries would have fewer proficient students than the United States. Using the NAEP standard, no country comes close to having a majority of proficient readers.

Under the NAEP standard, Singapore is the only nation in the world to have a majority of its students be proficient in science, and that by a scant 1 percent. Only a handful of countries would have a majority of students proficient in mathematics.

All those august organizations have rejected the NAEP achievement levels because the process is confusing to the people who try to set the levels and because the results are inconsistent: Children can't answer questions they should be able to and can answer questions they shouldn't be able to. The levels also give what the National Academy of Sciences called "unreasonable" results, including the fact that only 29 percent of U.S. fourth-graders were considered proficient or better by NAEP, yet America ranked third among 26 participating nations.

Other evidence is easy to come by. In 2000, 2.7 percent of American high school seniors scored 3 or better -- the score at which colleges begin to grant credit for the course -- on Advanced Placement calculus. Almost 8 percent of seniors (including those who did not take the test) scored above 600 on the math SAT; nearly a quarter (24 percent) of those who took it scored over 600. Yet NAEP said that only 1.5 percent of the nation's seniors reached its "advanced" level.

So why does the government continue to report such misleading information? The "Leaders and Laggards" report illustrates why: The numbers are useful as scare techniques. If you can batter people into believing the schools are in awful shape, you can make them anxious about their future -- and you can control them.

In the 1980s, the "schools suck" bloc used such numbers to make us fearful that Japan, now emerging from a 15-year period of recession and stagnation, was going to take our markets; today, India and China play the role of economic ogres.

Recently, Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote in The Post that constant references to a "war on terror" "stimulated the emergence of a culture of fear. Fear obscures reason, intensifies emotions and makes it easier for demagogic politicians to mobilize the public on behalf of policies they want to pursue." Happens all the time in education. The most recent phony alarm comes from Eli Broad and Bill Gates, who are putting up $60 million hoping to "wake up the American people." If the fear-mongers can scare you sufficiently (how many times have you heard the phrase "failing schools" in the past five years?), you might permit them to do to your public schools things you would otherwise never allow.

Gerald W. Bracey, an independent researcher and writer, is a fellow with policy groups at Arizona State University and the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation in Ypsilanti, Mich. He was director of research, evaluation and testing for the Virginia Department of Education from 1977 to 1986.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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