WASHINGTON — Getting all students working at grade level, or “proficient,” in reading and math by 2014 as the No Child Left Behind law mandates is the new Holy Grail of American education.
But some education experts say that provisions in the five-year-old law that allow states to set their own proficiency standards for their standardized tests — a critical component of measuring “adequate yearly progress” toward No Child Left Behind's reading and math goals — undermine that quest.
“There’s a huge problem in that the level of difficulty varies so differently from state to state,” said Michael Petrilli, vice president for national programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington-based education organization. “They (students) are all going to go to college and compete for the same jobs, and they are getting a different education based on an accident of zip code.”
In some cases, differing definitions have meant that states such as California and South Carolina, which have some of the highest proficiency standards, have lowered the scores needed to pass, according to a recent Fordham Institute study. In other states, it's meant that after years of taking relatively easy tests in elementary schools, students stumble when faced with more difficult tests in middle school, the report found.
The concerns over setting proficiency standards are part of a broader and age-old American debate over who — the federal government or state and local entities — should have primary control over education.
According to the Fordham report, fourth-graders in Wisconsin are expected to know the difference between fact and opinion after reading simple sentences. Fourth-graders in Massachusetts, however, are expected to understand fact vs. opinion after reading passages with the same level of difficulty as those found in the works of Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy.
Wisconsin Department of Instruction officials questioned the methodology of the Fordham report, which compared the proficiency standards of 26 states that administer both their own exams and tests by the Northwest Evaluation Association, a nonprofit testing group. Fordham’s findings on Wisconsin’s relatively lower fourth-grade reading standards are echoed in a report published in July by the National Center for Educational Statistics.
Fordham “wants a national standard, so of course their research is going to reflect this,” said Patrick Gasper, a communications officer with Wisconsin’s Department of Instruction. “We don’t necessarily believe it’s in the best interests of the states to have a national standard. While we’re open to guidance from the federal government, we believe the states know best what’s in the best interest of their students.”
No Child Left Behind is a major expansion of federal authority over state and local educational policy, said Andrew Rudalevige, an assistant professor of political science at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania.
In order for Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, then chair of the House education committee, to persuade Republican members to vote for the bill, “he had to argue that it respected state autonomy,” Rudalevige said. “National standards of proficiency were sacrificed to the principle of local control over education.”
Five years later, No Child Left Behind, which faces a contentious reauthorization, has weathered similar scrutiny over whether some states have set the bar too low for students or if the law defines “proficiency” too narrowly by relying so heavily on standardized tests.
“There is recognition on Capitol Hill that the standards are too low,” said Amy Wilkins, a vice president of Education Trust, a Washington-based research and educational advocacy group. “But in the American psyche there is ingrained this idea of local control. The question is, how do you reconcile the two?”
As one of the law’s authors, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, is concerned that the public's trust in Congress’ ability to legislate education matters has been eroded.
“Chairman Miller feels that has diminished the credibility of Washington in the minds of the American public,” said Tom Kiley, Miller’s spokesman. Lawmakers “don’t have the credibility to say here’s where the national standards will be.”
The U.S. Department of Education is in a similarly complicated position when it comes to proficiency standards. The department approves states’ accountability plans for meeting the mandate, but steers clear of gauging the rigors of standardized tests used to meet those goals or monitoring the passing score needed to be considered proficient on math and reading tests.
“NCLB gives states and local governments the power to solve their own problems,” said Jo Ann Webb, an Education Department spokeswoman. “It encourages local control.”
Some educational experts point to such tests as the Nation’s Report Card, given biennially to a sampling of fourth- and eighth-graders across the country, as a way to gauge how students are doing. But while NCLB requires that all states participate in the Nation’s Report Card, the material tested isn’t aligned with any state’s curriculum, and the standard for proficiency is higher than NCLB standards in many states.
At least 30 states have joined with Achieve Inc., a bipartisan, nonprofit organization that works to help states raise academic standards, in an effort to link proficiency standards, testing and other measures of student performance to what will be expected of kids when they graduate high school and enter either college or the workforce. The effort, dubbed the American Diploma Project, also has gained support among state and federal lawmakers for its focus on what students will need to know to compete globally.
According to a study by the National Center for Education Statistics of mathematics and science achievement of fourth-graders in 25 countries, in 2003 American students ranked in the middle of the pack behind students from Chinese Taipei, Japan and Singapore.