Harold O. Levy is executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation and was New York City schools chancellor from 2000 to 2002.
Some states, recognizing that teaching reading to all students is a tough business, have simply chosen to legitimize illiteracy by making their tests so easy that almost anyone can pass them. That’s the sorry conclusion I’ve reached after going through this year’s selection process for the elite scholarship program I head. An amazing disparity in standards is emerging. This race to the bottom has got to stop.
Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, each state is required to conduct annual assessments in third through eighth grade in math and reading. Historically, there has always been a range of standards and scores in the various states, with a cluster of Eastern states having both the highest standards and scores, and with Mississippi at the bottom. Today, the Eastern states are still at the top (although they’ve shuffled around a bit) and Mississippi has raised its standards dramatically, but other states are giving Mississippi a run for the title of national dunce.
When the authors of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test — the “nation’s report card” — sought to “map” their national standards against the standards established by individual states using the most recent available data, they identified 10 states where reading proficiency standards were below the NAEP standards. Jill Barshay of the Hechinger Report recently called out Georgia for having standards that are particularly weak; they are a full four grades behind New York’s, which are generally regarded as the toughest. The greatest scorn, however, has to be reserved for the five states that have set their eighth-grade standards below the NAEP levels in both reading and math: Alabama, Connecticut, Georgia, Idaho and Ohio. The legislators in those states who permit this fraud on the public are dooming their populations to failure.
The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which I head, uses state scores to award large scholarships to exceptionally high-performing, low-income students nationally. We use the state tests to equalize grades among schools, because different schools employ very different standards in their grading. However, it has become clear to me that we can no longer use state tests without a separate equalizer among the tests themselves when several scholarship applicants with top state test scores also had terrible standardized test scores. The College Board’s widely administered PSAT revealed that many of the students who would be regarded as exemplary, for example, in Georgia would be regarded as merely proficient (or worse) in many other states.
The state-by-state disparities at the “advanced” level are particularly revealing. Using the NAEP eighth-grade reading standards, for example, Mississippi had 1 percent of its students score “advanced” and Nevada 3 percent, while Maryland had 7 percent and Massachusetts 8 percent. Without using the NAEP test results to equilibrate the scores, we might have been misled into believing that all “advanced” performers on the state tests were equal. That turns out to be false, the product of the kind of subterfuge that would not be tolerated if test scores were subject to consumer protection laws.
The update of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act making its way through Congress does nothing to remedy this situation. It does for the first time facilitate comparisons among students of different income brackets, which is a major step in the right direction. However, it continues the practice of allowing each state to set its own standards. As a result, a state can set the bar low and claim victory when its students clear the unjustifiably low hurdle. States that choose to reach higher are then criticized for having fewer of their students reach the ostensibly “advanced” level. This is exactly what happened two years ago when the New York Board of Regents was criticized for a precipitous “drop” in the percentage of students deemed proficient in reading; what really happened was that the state adopted an appropriately rigorous set of standards. Those who simply read the tabloid headlines would have thought the schools had suddenly become incompetent. New York school officials were criticized for a “drop” when all that they were doing was finally being honest. Ironically, neighboring Connecticut, with its embarrassingly low standards, was simultaneously being praised for having so many of its students ace what in reality were dumbed-down tests.
In a digitized economy, students can no longer afford this political shell game. All states should be compelled to use rigorous standards. That’s the only way we will know which children are being educated and which are being cheated.