More Touting of Massachusetts’ Scores

by theschoolprincipal on December 7, 2010

Subtitle: Teachers Are Not to Blame

Let me first say that I agree with Jesse Turner when he warns Congress, the BBC (Billionaires Boys Club), Arne, and the Michelle Rhees of the country: “Children are more than test scores.” Under NCLB the only criterion that appears to  matter is student test scores. If test scores are poor, teachers are blamed. The first report* I linked to in yesterday’s blog tells us where the problem is – and it’s not teachers –which we knew all along.

That said, I also know that improving our schools will involve analyzing and measuring student achievement from year to year.  For meaningful school reform to take place we need to know if we are raising our standards every year, and we need to know that our students are improving each  year as the standards are raised. If we want to take control of the school reform movement so that we can make sure that all students are progressing,– and if we want to release ourselves from NCLB, —  we need to find a meaningful way to address accountability.

Yesterday’s post tells us that Massachusetts is doing  much better than the rest of us. Today’s post tells why:

Yesterday’s post provides a link to a report that  every policymaker, educator, and concerned parent needs to read and understand. It is written by Gary Phillips from the American Institutes for Research (AIR) and it’s entitled *”International Benchmarking: State Education Performance Standards.”  The report distinguishes between each state’s content standards and its performance standards. In other words, your state might  have high content standards for the subjects taught — but the state assessments (the performance standards), which tell us how well students are learning the content standards, have most likely been watered down, the cut scores have been lowered, and the results are meaningless.

For example, the chart on p. 11 in the link tells us that in my state, Arizona,  that on the 2007 4th grade math test 65% of students were proficient — and on the 8th grade math test that 48% were proficient.

The question is then asked: how would these scores look if all of the states had used a common performance standard that had been internationally benchmarked to TIMSS or PIRLS.  (Both surveys are sponsored by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), currently located in the Netherlands . TIMSS is an assessment of Grade 4 and Grade 8 students in mathematics and science, and PIRLS is an assessment of Grade 4 students in reading.)

Here is how Arizona fared (see charts on p. 16 & 17): only 31% of Arizona 4th graders would have been proficient in math and only 24% of 8th graders. Reading comparisons for 4th and 8th grade are available as well. (I caution you to read the heading of each graph carefully to make sure you’re looking at the right chart.)

Now I have the answer to why 78 -80% of 8th graders in a district can “pass” the AIMS math test each year but only 30% of in-coming 9th graders are ready to take Algebra 1-2. It’s certainly not because the teachers aren’t doing their job. There is obviously no correlation between the 8th grade AIMS math test and getting students prepared for Algebra 1-2. The test should at some level predict how well 8th graders will do in Algebra 1-2.  However, it’s obvious from these scores that rather than making sure their students are prepared for next year’s 9th grade curriculum, principals are making their teachers prepare students for meaningless AIMS tests.

Of all the states and D.C., Massachusetts is getting the best results. Why? Should we look at their standards? Does Massachusetts have world-class standards in math? Here’s what the report says on p. 15 of the link :

For Grade 4 mathematics, only Massachusetts
had world-class mathematics standards . These
standards are comparable to the mathematical skill
and knowledge of the typical (or average) 4th-grade
student in Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong—
the highest achieving countries on the 2007 TIMSS .

For Grade 8 mathematics, Massachusetts and
South Carolina were the only states with world-class
standards . These standards are comparable to the
mathematical skill and knowledge of the typical (or
average) 8th-grade student in South Korea, Japan,
Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong—the highest
achieving countries on the 2007 TIMSS.

Take a look at your state and find how it’s rated. (A quick link is provided here, but I urge you to look at the entire report on the earlier link.)  Also, read about benchmarking in the report. Most states have now adopted the Common Core Standards (the content standards) and now  it’s time to write  the assessments (the performance standards).  Benchmarking, which I am a proponent of, will be used to determine each student’s achievement on the test. Phillips also provides advice on how to reset our performance standards. You will read in this section the reason he is critical of NCLB — its unintended consequences — which this blog is largely about.
Yesterday’s blog also contained a link to another report, which compares each state’s 8th grade advanced math scores to scores of other countries. (The data used were pulled from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) math test and from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests.)

Again, Massachusetts ranked the highest — but not high enough if the United States is to compete globally in the 21st century — not to mention our students’  future personal satisfaction. Here’s what Eric Hanushek, Stanford economist and writer of the report, says about the importance of  math in our kids’ future:

“Existing research, though not conclusive, indicates that math skills better predict future earnings and other economic outcomes than other skills learned in high school. The American Diploma Project estimates that ‘in 62 percent of American jobs over the next 10 years, entry-level workers will need to be proficient in algebra, geometry, data interpretation, probability and statistics.’”

Hanushek also makes the point that since NCLB was implemented math scores have slowly improved. I am not surprised because in every classroom in America there has been a major emphasis on math skills since the introduction of NCLB. But NCLB did not address deep-seated problems, such as mediocre content standards and low performance standards mentioned above. Once we address that issue, change will begin — but it will be slow and it will take 15- 20 years* before we can compete successfully with the rest of the world. (If you are shocked, see the asterisk below.)

One thing I know — teachers are not to blame for the worse than mediocre math scores seen in state after state across the country. If students enter a grade prepared to be successful, then most teachers are more than capable — and motivated — to prepare them to be successful in the following grade. With 50 states and D.C, each having their own standards, and with our very transient society, it’s difficult to find a classroom where 90% of the students start off the year prepared. Teachers then spend their time remediating  large numbers of students, which dilutes the curriculum and prevents the top students in the class from being challenged.

The shock method sent throughout the nation’s schools under the name of No Child Left Behind was ill-advised. The unintended consequences have dismantled public education. Please let your Congressmen and Senators know that you do not want NCLB reauthorized next session.

*Here’s why we need 15-20 years in order to prepare our students so that America can compete in a global economy — and if you don’t believe me, take note that it took Finland, whose schools are considered #1, twenty-five years to reach the top:

The next wave of school reform (post NCLB) must not be another shock wave.  We are so far behind other nations that in order to catch up on the international playing field we must be strategic. The best reform would be to begin with a particular kindergarten class (say, the graduating class of 1229, which is the kindergarten class  that starts school in fall of 2011).

1) We need to raise the standards for this particular kindergarten class (and we need to make certain that entering kindergartners are ready for kindergarten before allowing them in — no late birthdays, etc.) In order to raise the standards we must take a look at the international standards, break them down into pieces and then identify the pieces that can reasonably be added to the kindergarten standards in 2011.

2. The following year we increase the standards a bit more by adding additional pieces to the kindergarten class of 2012 — and we add new pieces from the international standards — but not all of them —  to the 1st grade standards, which is where our kindergarten class of 2011 now resides. We continue this process piecemeal as the Class of 2029 proceeds through the grades —  all the way up through 12th grade. It’s called incremental change and no, it doesn’t cure our problems all at once — but neither does it bring harm to our students and to our schools. It’s rational, it’s coherent, and it allows the time to tweak along the way. Slowly but surely meaningful school reform will result. At some point most of the international standards will have been incorporated into our own standards. For those states that have adopted the Common Core Standards the same method applies.

However, for students who reside in areas of poverty, the process will take longer. Every educator I know of who despises NCLB still believes in the need for school reform — particularly reform that provides equity of opportunity for all students. To help students who come from generations of poverty we need to provide free pre-school (not daycare) to these students from the age of 2 on. The goal will be to provide intensive pre-schooling in order to make sure they are ready for kindergarten. If we protect the integrity of the K-12 school system, we can provide first-class, world-class education to all of our students. All students, no matter what their I.Q., will have the opportunity to reach their potential.

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