Thursday, April 20, 2006

Left Behind
You may have seen the story this morning about a survey of parents and teachers regarding the likelihood that the No Child Left Behind Act will succeed in getting all students up to state standards in reading and math by 2014. Parents are much more likely to believe this will happen than teachers are. If you're the kind of person who'd wager on such things, bet on the teachers being right.

No Child Left Behind has as its centerpiece the idea that the feds will allow states to maintain control over what students should know and be able to do. But state standards are a patchwork. What is expected of the average eighth grader in Texas is a lot different than what's expected of the average eighth grader in New York. This accounts for the vast discrepancies between the proficiency figures shown by state tests and those based on a national test, such as the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress). Some state standards seem shockingly low. When I was developing test-prep materials for use in Texas schools, I found it hard to believe that anyone could fail the grade 8 tests, especially in language arts, given the simplistic reading passages and dead-easy questions on them. When California jumped into the state-testing pool with both feet back in the late 90s, its standards seemed fabulously high, especially in social studies. Sample objective for grade 7: "Describe the theological, political, and economic ideas of the major figures during the Reformation, e.g., Desiderius Erasmus, Martin Luther, John Calvin, William Tyndale." During precisely the same years, the only Calvin Texas seventh-graders were likely to know anything about owned a stuffed animal named Hobbes.

The goal of having all students at or above state standards is admirable, although it also can lead to something known in testing circles as the "Lake Wobegon effect"--the statistically impossible situation where everyone is above average. It is theoretically possible for every student to score at or above the established level for "proficiency." That's because state tests are "criterion-referenced," as contrasted with "norm-referenced" tests that grade on a curve, thus requiring some students to fail. However, even criterion-referenced tests are norm-referenced to a degree--if vast numbers of kids begin to pass, there follows a suspicion that the tests may be too easy, and they're tweaked so that some kids will fail. Some states adjust their standards and tests every couple of years, which makes me wonder how they can know whether their kids are really improving versus some standard that defines proficiency--the standard keeps moving.

Neither of these factors--the dubious rigor of state standards or the possibility that all students will be permitted to succeed in the first place--is readily apparent to parents, but they matter a great deal to teachers and to students. What parents are expressing about No Child Left Behind's likely success is mostly a hope. Teachers, who are generally better informed about what's going on in schools than the best-informed parent, understand the difficult reality. That's not to say they don't want every kid to succeed, only that they know how hard it's going to be, especially by government fiat and/or unfunded mandate.

In the end, the strong belief parents have in the eventual success of NCLB by 2014 is a bit like a patient's strong belief that cancer will be cured by 2014. "Sure, why not? It seems like we ought to be able to do it by then." But ask a physician or medical researcher, who knows a lot more about the field than the typical patient, and you'll find a different sort of optimism. "We're working hard and we'll make it someday, but it's unrealistic to give us a deadline like that."

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