Varying Standards May Hurt 'No Child'

By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 4, 2007

A new study of state achievement tests offers evidence that the No Child Left Behind law's core mission -- to push all students to score well in reading and math -- is undermined by wide variations in how states define a passing score.

Some congressional leaders and education experts seized on the study, released today by the District-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute, to support changes to the federal law that would help determine which tests are easier to pass and which are harder. The study's authors said the results show the challenge of imposing national goals when each state has its own testing and scoring system.

It is "crazy not to have some form of national standards for educational achievement -- stable, reliable, cumulative, and comparable," Chester E. Finn Jr., the institute's president, and Michael J. Petrilli, vice president for national programs and policy, wrote in the study. "What is the meaning of measurable academic gains . . . if the yardstick is elastic?"

The study ranked Maryland 22nd of 26 states for the difficulty of its reading exam passing scores, also known as cut scores. South Carolina ranked first on that measure. Virginia and the District were not included. Maryland officials questioned the study's methods and asserted that their standards are tough, especially because the five-year-old federal law mandates that all students pass the exams by 2014.

"We think our cut scores are reasonable for what people are being asked to do by 2014, especially given that it's for all subgroups -- students who don't speak English or students with special needs," said Leslie A. Wilson, Maryland's assistant state superintendent for accountability and assessment.

The study looked at about half the states in which students from third through eighth grades took state math and reading exams in addition to another test called the Measures of Academic Progress, conducted by the nonprofit Northwest Evaluation Association.

The study shows some state exams to be much easier than others. For example, the study estimated that 93 percent of students who took the MAP exam would have passed Colorado's third-grade reading test, while 39 percent would have passed California's.

"Some states are making progress in better aligning their standards with the skills needed for students to enter college and the workplace," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), chairman of the education committee, said in a statement. "But the report released today demonstrates that we still have work to do."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company