Testing… The Proficiency Illusion

A COMMENTARY ON ACADEMIC TESTING and allied miscellany…

We live in a very complex, interdependent and competitive world where the importance of formal education cannot be stressed often enough. The President made an issue out of the fact that our school children rank 25th in the world in math and 21st in science. The first thing that came to mind was that our educational system lacks rigor. What good are more days in the academic school year, as the President proposes, if those days lack rigorous challenges and are merely more of the same routine that is producing disappointing results. Surprisingly, American Students never did rank high on those tests mentioned by the President.

I decided to investigate further and was both surprised and gratified to read that many California schools showed academic improvement as measured by the Academic Performance Index(API). I complimented our teachers for their good work.

The API is a measurement of academic performance and progress of individual schools in California. The numeric API scores range from a low of 200 to 1000. The present state wide target is a score of 800. Growth is measured by how well a school compares with 800. API is tied to monetary and incentive awards by setting growth targets for each school. In addition, the API is used to determine adequate yearly progress as part of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Next I wanted to know how California scores compared with other States, thinking such information would be readily available .Much to my surprise , even with all the Federal involvement , I found no meaningful comparisons of scores between states. How could this be?

The short answer is that despite the fact that California has accepted the National Common Core Standards for education ,it has like all other states, the prerogative of preparing its own tests, and setting its own benchmarks. Since states are not using common standardized tests the scores in one state do not readily compare with scores in another state. It is accepted that California has the most difficult tests when compared with other states.

The Federal Government was not trusted to establish the National Core Standards so the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers took on the task. With the help of the Gates Foundation the National Common Core Standards came about. The Standards were to be based on the international test where our kids did not rank at the top. The Federal government enhanced the process by giving funds to states that adopted standards and means of testing to show improvement over time. Thus the race for the Federal dollars began. Federal funds are less than 10% of the school budget but account for practically 100% of the required testing. All of the States except Virginia, Texas and Alaska have or are expected to adopt the National Core Standards. Some states presently not coming aboard are concerned about a national curriculum and Federal control of education. Education has always been primarily a state and local concern. Regardless of how one feels about the Common Core Standards, it seems reasonable that teachers know how students are doing and have the means of comparing student progress with students within the school, state, other states , the Nation or the world for that matter.

When there is a dispute over whose standards should be common in our great land, it is determined by the political process.

Critics say that improvement in schools is the result of low bench marks being set thus improvement is assured. Politicians are quick to point out that improvement is the result of initiative they championed. Low starting points will show great improvement but what will the politician do after a couple of years when kids get to where they should have been when they started two years back ? Obviously they will make excuses and say it was the fault of the other gal or guy.

Academic performance tests must be standardized, valid and reliable to be meaningful!

Common standards would force publishers and others to compete using actual results that are common across states rather than be based on relationships, politics and claims that are impossible to judge. It would make it harder for educators and politicians to hide behind their own data and claim their states as educational bastions when they may not be..

For purposes of argument, lets say all states agree on common standards. What is the most cost effective way to determine reliable, valid and standardized measures of progress toward attaining academic goals? Testing is a huge business. Why not let the long established pros do it?

The College of Education, University of Iowa has a standardized test of basic skills K-8. It has been used in Iowa and other States with good results since 1935.The College could be commissioned to prepare a test to test attainment of the goals expressed in the Common Core Standards. The Educational Testing Services Scholastic Aptitude Test(SAT) has been around since 1901. They could handle the test creation job as well as anyone. Or the American College Board test (ACT) a competitor of SAT and has been around since 1959, they also would appear to have the talent to prepare a test to do the required job.

The solution may be to turn the clock back and rely on teacher made tests to test the outcomes for their particular class and Grade Point Averages(GPA’s). The correlation between meeting the Common Core Standards and teacher made classroom tests may prove to be as reliable if not more so than a national standardized test which is nowhere in sight….What is tested is taught and what is measured is managed.

Some say to improve our world ranking on academic tests we must look outside the clasesroom and improve a myriad of other social and economic factors. It seems that countries that rank high have extended families that put a premium on education . No matter what the variables may be a great teacher seems to get great results. Note: The United states does a better job at mass education than any other country in the world. Our high schools graduate more qualified students than our leading Universities from Berkeley to Harvard can enroll due to space. Students find their interests in a variety of subjects not tested. Many times interest trumps aptitude. Aptitude changes over time. Our comprehensive high schools need a lot of help. 90% of our children are in public schools. Public schools have and continue to define our Nation.

John Rajcic

9-29-2010