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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