I am troubled by Motoko Rich’s NY Times piece earlier this week in which she worries that Test Scores Under Common Core Show That “Proficient” Varies by State. Does Rich believe that the push for uniform academic standards (the Common Core standards) was really all about the tests? Does Rich really believe there is some kind of objective, universal, ideal test score standard—a model—to which we can compare all students and judge their academic standing? Does she believe standardized tests are sufficiently comprehensive really to measure students’ accomplishments and compare them to each other? Does she believe that cut scores derive from some kind of scientific principle? Does Rich believe any of this matters?
Rich writes: “Ohio seems to have taken a page from Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average. Last month, state officials releasing an early batch of test scores declared that two-thirds of students at most grade levels were proficient on reading and math tests given last spring under the new Common Core requirements. Yet similar scores on the same tests meant something quite different in Illinois, where education officials said only about a third of students were on track. And in Massachusetts, typically one of the strongest academic performers, the state said about half of the students who took the same tests as Ohio’s children met expectations. It all came down to the different labels each state used to describe the exact same scores on the same tests.”
Whether we need consistent academic expectations from place to place (the Common Core standards) is a question that sparks enormous controversy, but that is not Rich’s topic this week. She conflates two issues—consistent academic content and consistent cut scores from state to state on the Common Core tests: “That kind of inconsistency in educational standards is what the Common Core—academic guidelines for kindergarten through high school reading and math that were adopted by more than 40 states—was intended to redress.” Rich writes her piece from Ohio, where the education department raised the cut score when it appeared that the mass of children would fail the new tests. In New York, then state commissioner John King (our new acting U.S. Secretary of Education) set the cut score so high that 70 percent of the students appeared to fail. Rich seems to believe that it is more important for students to appear to fail than for them to appear to succeed. She would, I presume, advocate for cut scores that frighten America into toughening up. What she fails to acknowledge is that cut scores are set by public officials, not by scientists.
Commenting on Rich’s piece, Diane Ravitch, who for several years was part of the governing board of the big test we call “the nation’s report card,” the National Assssment of Educational Progress, explains why consistency of cut scores across the states on the Common Core tests does not matter: “The good news is that we don’t need either of the Common Core tests to know how students in Oregon or Maine compare to students in other states. For that purpose, we have the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which compares states, measures achievement gaps. NAEP provides all the data anyone needs. I have yet to meet a parent who wanted to know how their child compared to children in other states. They want to know if they are getting along with other children, if they are doing the work that is right for their grade, if they are good citizens in school.” About the Common Core tests themselves she adds: “The bad news is that Arne blew away $360 million on the tests, and the states have wasted hundreds of millions more to prepare for the tests, to buy new technology for the tests, and to change instruction to fit the tests.”
Arizona State University professor, Gene Glass, trained as a psychometrician, raises significant questions about our obsession in education with measuring and comparing and ranking. He writes: “Around 1980, I served for a time on the committee that made most of the important decisions about the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The project was under increasing pressure to ‘grade’ the NAEP results: Pass/Fail; A/B/C/D/F; Advanced/Proficient/Basic. Our committee held firm: such grading was purely arbitrary, and worse, would only be used politically. The contract was eventually taken from our organization and given to another that promised it could give the nation a grade, free of politics. It couldn’t.”
Glass warns of the consequences: “Measurement has changed along with the nation. In the last three decades, the public has largely withdrawn its commitment to public education. The reasons are multiple: those who pay for public schools have less money, and those served by the public schools look less and less like those paying taxes. The degrading of public education has involved impugning its effectiveness, cutting its budget, and busting its unions. Educational measurement has been the perfect tool for accomplishing all three: cheap and scientific looking.”
Whether or not one likes the new academic standards established by the Common Core, it is important not to conflate the idea of consistent academic content across the states with the issue of consistency of cut scores on the Common Core tests. And it is important to consider what one values. Is the experience children and adolescents have at school the important thing, or is the measurement—by which we can compare students’ mastery of part of the academic content—what matters?