Dropping acid

Charles Murray has a beef with the No Child Left Behind Act. He's angry that his children's public schools in bucolic Frederick County, Maryland, have "turned themselves inside out to try to produce the right test results, with dismaying effects on the content of classroom instruction and devastating effects on teacher morale." So he did what any distinguished conservative scholar would do--he took to the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal (read his piece, "Acid Tests," here).

Marshalling bell curves and a stream of statistics, he sets out to prove NCLB's accountability metrics are "meaningless" and "deceptive."

Murray certainly knows numbers. He shows how across-the-board gains by all students can make it look like the achievement gap is closing while group differences remain the same. Here it is in a nutshell: Let's say that in your state, students must get 70 percent of the questions on the reading test correct to be considered "proficient." Last year, all of your school's white students scored in the 70s and 80s and therefore passed; all of your school's black students scored in the 50s and 60s and therefore failed. Hence, the "achievement gap" in terms of the pass rate was 100 percent. This year there was improvement across the board. White students now scored in the 80s and 90s, and black students in the 60s and 70s. If half of those black students scored in the 70s, let's say, then 50 percent of them passed, and your achievement gap was cut in half. Yet the average differences between white and black students remain.

So is this progress or not? If your goal is to arrive at a utopian future wherein all 18-year-olds possess the exact same knowledge and skills, group differences disappear, and the bell curve is flattened, the answer is no. But if you believe that "proficiency" has some meaning, that there is a certain level of literacy and numeracy required for meaningful participation in our economy and democracy, and that we are making gains in getting more students of all racial groups to this proficient level, then the answer is undeniably yes.

How does Murray handle the question? He claims that "conceptually, ‘proficiency' has no objective meaning that lends itself to a cutoff"; hence, the gains are illusory. If he's trying to say that most states have set the bar for "proficiency" so low as to be meaningless, well, no argument there. (And he's right that, by lowering the bar further, states can make the achievement gap evaporate. After all, in many states, most white students are already proficient. Any downgrading of standards will serve to redefine mostly Black and Hispanic students as "proficient," artificially shrinking the gap.)

But that doesn't mean that "proficient" is an inherently meaningless designation. True, someone has to make a judgment call whenever standards and "cut-scores" are involved. If the Department of Motor Vehicles can decide that you must score at least a 75 percent on your driver's test in order to get a license, surely thoughtful experts can determine the level of knowledge and skills required to tackle the demands of adulthood.

What does Murray think about the National Assessment Governing Board's (NAGB's) lofty definition of "proficiency"? For example, for high school seniors: "When reading text appropriate to twelfth grade, they should be able to extend the ideas of the text by making inferences, drawing conclusions, and making connections to their own personal experiences and other readings. Connections between inferences and the text should be clear, even when implicit. These students should be able to analyze the author's use of literary devices." If standards-setters do their job well, as NAGB has, the line between proficient and not proficient has a lot of meaning--in terms of life opportunities for individual students.

Murray's skepticism on this point leads him to make the astounding assertion that all children "cannot...even be proficient, if ‘proficient' is defined legitimately." (So now he seems to say that it can be defined, after all.) But why not? Sure, there will always be a bell curve, but couldn't better instruction, higher expectations, and well-prepared teachers move the entire curve to the right, getting most or all students past the "proficient" line?

That's exactly what NCLB aims to do, rhetoric about closing the achievement gap aside. About this Murray is confused. He writes that "the federal government is doling out rewards and penalties to school systems across the country based on changes in pass percentages." Wrong. NCLB's "adequate yearly progress" measure is famously (or infamously--ask the AFT) not about progress. It's about getting a certain percentage of students from all subgroups over the "proficient" bar. Nor do schools have to close the gap in average performance of subgroups.

And for good reason. No one would support a policy that gave schools an incentive to hold down the performance of white students in order to show gains in closing the achievement gap. (It's bad enough that already-proficient students face benign neglect under the current system.) That version of No Child Left Behind would deserve the treatment provided in Murray's column. But when crafting op-eds you really ought to go to war against the law you have, not the imaginary law you want to bash.

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