Revisiting Rotherham: What role should NAEP play in NCLB reauthorization?
In the discussion about ESEA reauthorization, people on both sides of the aisle have recognized the importance of setting rigorous standards aligned to college- and career-readiness expectations. The Obama Administration has, for instance, required that states adopt college- and career-ready standards as part of its ESEA waiver process. Similarly, Republican-sponsored ESEA reauthorization proposals (which Mike wrote about in a post yesterday) also ask states to set college- and career-readiness standards for students.
While this focus on setting clear and sufficiently rigorous standards is important, it is also insufficient. After all, if we’ve learned anything from 10 years of NCLB implementation, it’s that the act of setting standards doesn’t translate to increased student achievement unless those standards are meaningfully implemented in the classroom. And, one of the most important things for states to do to ensure strong implementation is to hold students accountable for actually learning the content laid out in the standards.
While the focus on setting clear and sufficiently rigorous standards is important, it is also insufficient.
Unfortunately, over the past 10 years, too many states—even those with reasonably rigorous standards—have asked very little of students on statewide assessments. In fact, Fordham’s 2007 “Proficiency Illusion” report found that “the central flaw in NCLB is that it allows each state to set its own definition of what constitutes ‘proficiency.’” And so, as we look towards NCLB reauthorization, we should seek to right this wrong.
In 2005, Andy Rotherham gave two pieces of advice to education reformers struggling with the issue of variability in state content standards and proficiency levels:
First, to those worried that the new NCLB accountability provisions could lead to the watering down of state standards, he argued that the path forward was to “build national consensus through governors working together and a bottom-up, consortia approach…[that would] save money, improve the quality of tests, and defuse the politics.”
Second, he argued against using “the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) as an actual yardstick with consequences,” noting that “it’s generally agreed that this would corrupt the NAEP’s validity as an independent gauge of trends over time, or as CGCS’s Mike Casserly once quipped, ‘why sully the almost only unsullied thing in education.’”
Seven years later, Rotherham’s first idea appears amazingly prescient. Governors did indeed come together to create a set of common standards for ELA and math, resulting in a dramatic and widespread improvement in the rigor of state standards.
But the issue of variability in state proficiency has yet to be addressed.
On the one hand, one of the requirements for states joining either the PARCC or SMARTER Balanced assessment Consortia is to agree to a common cut score. One option is to leave it to the consortia and hope that they set cut scores for proficiency sufficiently high.
Setting rigorous—and consistent—proficiency levels across states is too important to get wrong a second time.
But setting rigorous—and consistent—proficiency levels across states is too important to get wrong a second time. So, perhaps we need to establish an independent gauge that will help determine whether the proficiency levels set by either individual states or the assessment consortia are sufficiently rigorous? And, at the risk of challenging Andy’s forewarning, perhaps it’s time to revisit his caution against using the NAEP?
After all, the NAEP is a test that is widely agreed to be a reliable assessment of rigorous, K-12 content standards. Why not systematically compare the proficiency levels from statewide assessments to the proficiency levels of the NAEP 4th, 8th, and 12th grade tests and require that there is minimal variability between the two?
It’s time for ed reformers to confront an uncomfortable truth: ensuring that states set sufficiently rigorous standards isn’t enough. Common Core won’t move the needle on student achievement as long as states continue to set their proficiency levels so low. As legislators on both sides of the aisle work to revamp the federal ESEA, it’s time to revisit the purpose of the NAEP and leverage its power to set the bar for students consistently high across all states.
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About the Editor
Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow
Kathleen Porter-Magee is a Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow and the Senior Director of the High Quality Standards Program at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, where she leads the Institute’s work on state, national, and international standards evaluation and analysis.
May 16, 2013
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