The National Center for Education Statistis has issued a study in which it attempts to apply a
methodology for mapping state proficiency standards in reading and mathematics onto the appropriate NAEP scale, employing data from the 2004–05 academic year. The mapping exercise was carried out for both grades 4 and 8. For each of the four subject and grade combinations, the NAEP score equivalents to the states’ proficiency standards vary widely, spanning a range of 60 to 80 NAEP score points. Although there is an essential ambiguity in any attempt to place state standards on a common scale, the ranking of the NAEP score equivalents to the states’ proficiency standards offers an indicator of the relative stringency of those standards.In English that means that it appears that as differences in the results among the states can be largely the result of how tough their state standards are.
There is a strong negative correlation between the proportions of students meeting the states’ proficiency standards and the NAEP score equivalents to those standards, suggesting that the observed heterogeneity in states’ reported percents proficient can be largely attributed to differences in the stringency of their standards.
The NY Times paints a debate between those who think there should be national standards and those, like Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, who think that states should set standards, but the story--and the bureaucrats--are confusing a couple of things. Take this quote from Spellings:
The new report, she said, will make it possible for parents and legislators to compare national and state test results meaningfully, and to improve school performance as they think best.Spelllings herself, the Secretary of Education, confuses two important concepts--standards and curriculum.
“For us to dictate one curriculum and one level of rigor would be very imprudent,” she said.
A standard is a level of desired proficiency or skill. It is a goal than can be laid out and measured. Achievement against the standard can likewise be measured. A curriculum on the other hand is a course of study, ideally designed to get the student to achieve the standard, but it is a series of topics that are to be presented in the classroom--a curriculum is not a standard and a standard is not a curricula.
But what this story does cover is the real problem in the manner in which NCLB currently works. What NCLB does is establish a "quasi-standard" of proficiency--without defining proficiency nor ordering teh Department of Education to establish a standard. So the task of setting the standard is left to the states, who want to be in control and avoid penalities, so they set their definition of proficiency at various levels. Then the localities get involved since localities generally set the curricula at the various levels. The problem is that you have a federal mandate left undefined, states setting varying standards and localities implementing a curriculum which may nor may not achieve the state standard.
But what Spellings and Congress don't understand is that they can set a national standard (a goal if you will) and then say that this is the national definition of "proficient" in reading, or math, or science. So long as that standard is measurable and consistent, then you have a standard that states cannot game and you get a better picture of how states and schools are doing.
With a national standard, states can still pick their own tests, assuming the tests are designed to test for the standard--which they can be guaranteed to do so. The states and localities can still set the curriculum with a clear understanding of what is to be achieved with the curriculum.
The problem with NCLB is in an attempt to appease the federalism concerns of states, Congress punted instead of holding firm to the notion that the federal govenrment can set goals and standards without unduly interfereing in how states operate.
This map gives a graphical representation of the study results.