Sunday, November 24, 2013

"Superman" and Rhee blew it!

My last two posts (There's only one problem with this narrative and Public schools in Crisis? Check the facts) began looking at education expert Diane Ravitch's new book, Reign of Error. Ravitch maintains that there is no "crisis in American education" and backs up her assertion with hard facts.

One of the claims of the "reformers" is that today's students don't know as much as their counterparts from 25 or 50 years ago. In this post we will examine this claim.

According to Ravitch, the U.S. has only one way to measure student performance over time. It is called the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). NAEP is run by an independent, bipartisan board consisting of "teachers, administrators, state legislators, governors, businesspeople and members of the general public." Ravitch was appointed to this board by Pres. Clinton and served on the board for 7 years.

According to Ravitch: "NAEP is central to any discussion of whether American students and the public schools they attend are doing well or badly. It has measured reading and math and other subjects over time. It is administered to sample of students; no one knows who will take it, no one can prepare to take it, no one takes the whole test."

NAEP reports scores in two ways. The first is a "scale" score which is simply a number on a scale with a maximum of 500. This scores reflects "what students know and can do." Its purpose is to establish a trendline over time.

The second is "achievement levels." Ranging from "advanced" on the high end to "proficient," "basic," and "below basic." Misunderstanding of what each of these achievement levels represents can lead, and has lead, to misrepresentation of the state of our public schools.

The following definitions are all direct quotes from Ravitch: "Advanced" represents a superior level of academic performance. In most subjects and grades, only 3-8 percent of students reach that level. I think of it as A+. Very few students in any grade or subject score "advanced."

"Proficient" represents solid achievement. The National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB) defines it as "solid academic performance for each grade assessed. This is a very high level of academic achievement. Students reaching this level have demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter, including subject matter knowledge, application of such knowledge to real-world situations, and analytical skills appropriate to the subject matter." From what I observed as a member of the NAGB who reviewed questions and results over a seven-year period, a student who is "proficient" earns a solid A and not less than a strong B+.

"Basic," as defined by the NAGB, is "partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at each grade." In my view, the student who scores "basic" is probably a B or C student.

"Below basic" connotes students who have a weak grasp of the knowledge or skills that are being assessed. This student, in my understanding, would be a D or below.

With this background, you will be able to see how "reformers" fudge the numbers to create a "crisis." Again, I quote Ravitch directly.

"The film Waiting for Superman misinterpreted the NAEP achievement levels. Davis Guggenheim, the film's director and narrator, used the NAEP achievement levels to argue that American students are woefully undereducated. The film claimed that 70 percent of eighth-grade students could not read at grade level. That would be dreadful if it were true, but it is not. NAEP does not report grade levels (grade level describes a midpoint on a grading scale where half are above and half are below). Guggenheim assumed that students who were not "proficient" on the NAEP were "below grade level." That is wrong. Actually 76 percent on NAEP are basic or above, and 24 percent are below basic. It would be good to reduce the proportion who are "below basic," but it is 24 percent, not the 70 percent Guggenheim claimed."

Ravitch points out that "reformer" Michelle Rhee, makes the same mistake--equating NAEP "proficiency" with "at grade level"--in her writings.

The full details can be found in chapter 5 of Ravitch's book, but here is the simple truth. "NAEP data show beyond question that test scores in reading and math have improved for almost every group of students over the last two decades: slowly and steadily in the case of reading, dramatically in the case of mathematics. Students know more and can do more in these two basic skills subjects now than they could twenty or forty years ago."

"Why the difference between the two subjects? Reading is influenced to a larger extent by differences in home conditions than mathematics. Put another way, students learn language and vocabulary at home and in school; they learn mathematics in school....their starting point in reading is influenced more by home and family than in mathematics."

"So the next time you hear someone say that the system is "broken," that American students aren't as well educated as they used to be, that our schools are failing, tell that person the facts. Test scores are rising."

Well, that may be so, some will say, but the real problem is that our students stink when compared with those in other countries. We'll deal with that in the next post.

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