Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity

Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 08/ 3/2010

Proficiency should mean college ready—and an acceptance letter

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is Robert Pondiscio, director of communications at the Core Knowledge Foundation who launched the Core Knowledge Blog.

By Robert Pondiscio
Hundreds of thousands of New York parents received a rude shock last week with the release of the results of the latest state reading and math tests.

Last year, more than three out of four children were deemed “proficient” on the state tests in grades 3-8. This year, only about half cleared the bar, the result of New York resetting its definition of “proficient,” which had become so debased as to be functionally meaningless.

Consider: Eighth graders who scored a level 3 out of 4, or proficient, on the state’s reading and math tests have only a slightly better than 50/50 chance of graduating from high school four years later.

The evidence of New York’s proficiency illusion has been hiding in plain sight for years.

While state scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) have been stagnant, the state’s reading and math scores have gone through the roof. A study by Harvard University Education Professor Daniel Koretz ordered up by courageous state education officials has punctured the proficiency bubble.

You can argue until you’re blue in the face about cut scores, scale scores and comparisons to NAEP—whether schools have been getting better or worse in the Empire State—but these are arguments for wonks, psychometricians and politicians. To appreciate the damage done by the inflated scores, put yourself in the shoes of a low-income, poorly educated parent in the South Bronx, where I taught for several years.

When the state test says your kid is a “3” you’re happy. And why wouldn’t you be? The experts are telling you your child is exactly where he or she should be.

Here’s the dirty little secret about proficiency. There’s not much upside in being honest.

Don’t forget that it’s still the law of the land that all children will be proficient by 2014—a standard unlikely to be met unless by proficient we mean aspirating. Establish high and meaningful standards and boxcar numbers of children will not measure up now or in the foreseeable future. Lower the bar and you’re misleading a similar number to believe they have achieved a level of preparedness they have not. Advocate for a two-tier system, and you risk a return to the bad old days of “vocational” tracking and de facto segregation.

So all the credit and praise in the world should go to New York’s Education Commissioner David Steiner, his deputy John King and Merryl Tisch, the chancellor of the state’s Board of Regents, for striking a hammer blow for accountability and common sense. "We are facing the hard truth that the gains in the past were simply not as advertised," says Tisch.

Hear, hear. But if New York wants to be the truth-in-education state, let me humbly suggest they go all in. My suggestion: Define proficiency as college ready. Use state tests to let parents know if their children are on-track for success in higher education--and guarantee proficient high school graduates admission to the state’s university system.

"College ready" is education’s latest meaningless catch-phrase. Columbia ready and community college ready are very different standards. ACT results tell us only one in four graduating high school seniors nationwide is prepared to do C-level college work. This is ample proof that “college ready” is not an operative goal for high schools anywhere. The best that can be said is that at present, a high school education is designed to get you accepted into college, not necessarily to help you succeed there.

This hasn’t stopped everyone from President Obama on down from establishing “college and career-readiness” as the endgame for K-12 education. Very well. If that’s to be the standard, then define it, benchmark it, measure it and create assessments that give a fair and objective sense of progress toward that goal. I don’t expect New York to tell me if my daughter is Harvard material. But the state should be able to say if she’s SUNY material.

I’m not suggesting my child should be guaranteed admission to the State University school of her choice if she graduates with a New York Regent’s Diploma. Under the system I’m proposing, graduating college ready would guarantee a seat at one of the state’s 64 campuses.

Indeed, the enormous size and diversity of New York’s State University system makes it the ideal candidate to take on this kind of reform, ending the disconnect between secondary and post-secondary education systems.

Again, put yourself in the shoes of that South Bronx parent. For affluent parents the definition of college readiness is the same as Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography: you know it when you see it.

For low-income families with high aspirations but little educational experience, all they know is what the state and public schools tell them. And they’ve been misled. Seeing their children through the K-12 pipeline with a clear picture of readiness and a guaranteed college acceptance would likely be the difference between success and failure.

“’Proficiency’ on our exams has to mean something real,” Steiner wrote recently. “No good purpose is served when we say that a child is proficient when that child simply is not.”

Agreed. Proficiency should mean something real. So should “college ready.” Let’s join them at the hip and make it stick. Guaranteed college acceptance would be the difference between a hope and a promise--a clear signal to low-income families that their child is both ready and has earned a place at the table.


Follow my blog all day, every day by bookmarking And for admissions advice, college news and links to campus papers, please check out our Higher Education page at Bookmark it!

By Valerie Strauss  | August 3, 2010; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, Standardized Tests  | Tags:  new york and proficient, new york test scores, proficiency and test scores  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Willingham: What’s missing from Common Core standards plan (Part 2)
Next: Report: When/why progress in closing achievement gap stalled


Robert Pondiscio states, "College ready" is education’s latest meaningless catch-phrase.

So true. And as I remember back to the winter days of my Senior year of high school, most of the smartest and most accomplished kids were NOT "College ready".

We were 17 years old, and a legal seat in a bar was still months away for me. And that was one of many rites of passage (that included a drivers license and a first real girlfriend) that was compressed into that year. Probably as important as school achievement, was the maturity and home/friend support that some children possessed. And as I looked around at my graduation ceremony, it was clear that many kids who scored the highest were far less prepared for the next level. Not that that was necessarily a bad thing, just the reality.

It was all about potential then, and it will always be. The growth of kids at this age is all over the map in critical categories that no test will ever fully be able to evaluate. But, at least for me, I was lucky to still have the support that many kids going to college did not. And that made it possible to grow into a better student. You see, I did exceptionally well on standardized tests and most every high level high school course, but as I started my Freshman year at an elite college, I was still not ready, and if I was at a community college it wouldn't have mattered.

In this new data driven world of education, we too soon forget that these are just kids, and they grow in very different ways that needs to be appreciated, and not punished. I am scared for my kids sometimes, because I wonder if they will have the same luxury that I had to grow up in a reasonable way.

Posted by: AGAAIA | August 3, 2010 7:29 AM | Report abuse

Robert, your proposal is compelling indeed. But what about those state universities that are easy to get into anyway? What would change if a "college-ready" diploma guaranteed admission into the state university system?

You point out that "Columbia ready" and "community college ready" are quite far apart. Wouldn't such stratification be likely to persist within the state university system? Some campuses would get the higher-performing students; others would get the lower-performing students.

Like you, I find the term "college ready" meaningless (and for some reason the "ready" part makes me cringe). But I am not sure that the state universities would be "ready" to suffer the great enrollment decline that would occur if they turned down applicants who, say, could not write a research essay on a historical topic, work with trigonometric functions, or analyze a sonnet by Shakespeare or Petrarch.

The students who could do those and comparable things would find their way to the better universities, public and private. What would happen to the others? Would they be turned away? Why do I suspect that they would be admitted if they showed the ability to work in a group, say, or look up a topic online?

Posted by: DianaSenechal | August 3, 2010 8:54 AM | Report abuse

Agreed. Proficiency should mean something real. So should “college ready.” Let’s join them at the hip and make it stick. Guaranteed college acceptance would be the difference between a hope and a promise--a clear signal to low-income families that their child is both ready and has earned a place at the table.

"Proficiency should mean something real."

Why? Does A B C D F mean anything real except your grade in a class.

We have to fight the brainwashing that is going on in public education.

The curriculum only specifies what a teachers should teach in certain grades. It is not a guarantee of what a student will learn.

Tests only indicate what students have learned, it has no relationship with what the teacher has taught.

The teacher could have been the best teacher in the world and taught a class to the highest standards. This still will not guarantee students learning.

Guaranteed scholarships based upon state wide tests in the final year of high school are meaningful.

Guaranteed places at state universities are meaningless given the high tuition rate at even state schools.

New York States has had the Regents for years and should have been providing scholarships at State Universities based upon test results of the state tests of the last year of high school.

This is common sense. But let us get away from some new meaningless term such as “college ready”.

Robert Pondiscio is wrong.

Posted by: bsallamack | August 3, 2010 12:21 PM | Report abuse

New York States has had state tests for years.

The only lesson from New York States recalibrating the scores is that even a state with a history of standardized tests can go astray by lowering the standards of these tests.

The tests with problems were not state tests for high school but test developed for primary schools and middle schools.

The results on these tests did not match the NAEP tests and showed the problem.

The results of the standardized tests of D.C. and even Maryland do not match the results of the NAEP.

D.C. is reporting proficiency of 30 percent and above while the NAEP tests show proficiency of 11 percent.

All this shows is that state standardized tests can be worthless when the standards are lowered on these tests.

Posted by: bsallamack | August 3, 2010 12:33 PM | Report abuse

But if New York wants to be the truth-in-education state, let me humbly suggest they go all in. My suggestion: Define proficiency as college ready.
Robert Pondiscio
Valerie Strauss should be more careful with her guests.

This individual apparently know nothing about public education in New York State.

In the late 1970's and early 1980's New York City had the policy of Open Enrollment at the colleges of the City of New York. Any New York City high school graduate was allowed to attend a city colleges. This was a disaster and the many students who attended simply dropped out.

Yes there should be scholarships for students that score well on state tests but let us stop this nonsense early.

Public schools can not guarantee students that are "college ready". They can not even guarantee students that can read.

The only way any school can guarantee the level of learning of students is to reduce the standards to such a low level that they are meaningless.

You know 2+2 are 4. Great you are college ready.

You can identify the word cat with a picture of a cat. Great you are college ready.

This guest

Valerie Strauss should be more careful with her guests.

Posted by: bsallamack | August 3, 2010 12:49 PM | Report abuse

Last year, more than three out of four children were deemed “proficient” on the state tests in grades 3-8. This year, only about half cleared the bar, the result of New York resetting its definition of “proficient,” which had become so debased as to be functionally meaningless.
It always amazes me how individuals are so willing to distort facts for their private interests.

This individual makes his living from a non profit foundation that sells items in education for supposedly core knowledge. "College ready" would be a nice new line of goods that it could bring to market.

His account of the events in New York State has almost nothing to do with what was reported in the news.

New York State saw that there were problems on state tests where results did not match the national tests are the gold standard in public education testings.

The same problem that New York States corrected are problems with the D.C. tests and the Maryland state tests.

Only an opportunist could view this news as "if New York wants to be the truth in education state".

Public education has enough problems from the politicians with their political expedient policies. It does not need opportunist like Robert Pondiscio.

As for Core Knowledge the employer of Robert Pondiscio, director of communications, I would suggest this organization might want to reconsider whether their organization benefits from spin doctors.

Posted by: bsallamack | August 3, 2010 1:16 PM | Report abuse

@bsallamack I'm not sure you're representing my POV correctly. I'm not suggesting open enrollment, which was indeed a disaster. And I'm not defending NY's accountability system which has been a sham, especially to the kinds of kids I taught in the South Bronx (I'll leave it to you to decide if this is the same as "knowing nothing about public education in NY"; it's an arguable point). Neither is my point to defend test-driven accountability. But IF we are to treat tests as the alpha and omega of education, and IF we are to purport to use tests as a meaningful barometer of kids' progress (I said nothing at all about using tests to determine teacher effectiveness) and IF we are to treat college readiness as the endgame for K-12 education, then those who so advocate are duty bound to make those tests meaningful, benchmark them to a credible goal, and vouchsafe some kind of meaningful outcome. The system we have in place right now does none of those things. Instead it overinflates progress, breeds mediocrity, and all but ensures (for low-SES kids especially) that they can do all that we ask, go from one end of public school to the other doing all that is asked with little to show for it. In short, if a kid reads on grade level and graduates on time, we say "mission accomplished." It's a cruel joke. Bottom line: you can't lie to people. If we are to have a measurement system it has to be based on reality, not wishful thinking.

@DianaSenechal Students who can't write a competent essay don't meet my test for college ready. They probably don't meet yours either. The open question is whether they meet New York's or any other states. And that, alas, is a political one. Do you want a college ready standard that is willing to descibe the obviously unprepared as qualified so as to boost the percentage of kids who clear the bar? Or do you want the phrase "college ready" to actually mean what it says? The worst of all possible worlds would be to lower standards and tell tens of thousands of unprepared kids they're ready.

Oh wait, we're already doing that.

Posted by: rpondiscio | August 3, 2010 2:25 PM | Report abuse

How do all these comments about the New York State Regents and other tests used in New York fit in with the fact that a few years ago the Regents test was found to have rewritten passages from books to make them easier for the students to read?

In other words, the New York tests are just as useless as all other standardized tests and in many cases are being dumbed down so more students can pass. Thus any blog--or comments--that cite New York test results is totally unfounded.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | August 3, 2010 2:33 PM | Report abuse

But IF we are to treat tests as the alpha and omega of education, and IF we are to purport to use tests as a meaningful barometer of kids' progress.

Posted by: rpondiscio
I do NOT view test as the the alpha and omega of education, and I do NOT view them as meaningful barometer of kids' progress.

Your statement is simply the brain washing that has occurred in public education.

The national tests of D.C. have indicated problems in this school systems for years. National tests have also indicated problems in the majority of Title 1 poverty public schools in urban areas.

Has anyone investigated this school system or the other school systems indicated by testing that are having problems?

If they did they would discover schools that are lacking the basic standards for schools both public and private. These schools are unsafe, and the classroom do not have an environment where teachers can teach and children can learn since the school system takes no action against students that are disruptive and will not allow an environment that is the basic requirement of any school.

National tests can identify problems but they are totally useless in regard to public education if the problems indicated by these tests are not investigated and simply ignored.

A test is NOT a meaningful barometer of kids' progress. The test simply indicates whether a child has passed or failed the test. Mathematically a child that fails in the 4th grade will probably fail in the 8th grade. Based upon this why even bother to pay the expense of testing in the 8th grade.

It is time for this nation to understand that education is a two different parts process. Successful education in a classroom requires a teacher to teach, and students to learn. The best teacher in the world, can not make all the children in a classroom that have difficulty in learning, learn.

The best teacher in the world would be a failure in an unsafe school where the classroom environment is hindering a teacher from teaching and children from learning.

Public schools should not be given the task of achieving totally unrealistic goals. Their responsibilities are to have a curriculum to specify to a teacher the material that should be taught based upon the age of children. Contrary to the brain washing almost all public schools have a reasonable curriculum now.

Their responsibility is not to guarantee that every child will learn. Their responsibility is also to provide the basic standards of a school.

Yes, some of the students that graduate high school should be able to attend and obtain the benefits of a colleges education, but the high schools can not be expected to guarantee that every students, or any, is "college ready", just as the public school system of the high school can not guarantee that every student will be a high school graduate.


Posted by: bsallamack | August 3, 2010 3:28 PM | Report abuse

Posted by: rpondiscio

I see your organization as equivalent to the organizations that sell paint for the hair for men that are going bald.

Education standards are totally meaningless in education when schools are allowed to exist that do not provide the basic requirements of a school.

Your organization makes no mention of this glaring and correctable problem in education.

Large number of public schools are unsafe and do not provide in classrooms an environment that is required for teachers to teach and children to learn, and your organization are selling that the problem is standards.

By the way I am aware that your organization is a non profit.

Peddle your wares as much as you want, that is legal, but do not pretend that you have any creditability in a public forum when your organization makes no mention of the real problems of public education.
I see that your organization makes sales to school systems. I doubt that even you with the idea of public schools guaranteeing success, and tests, would think it foolish to suggest that your organization guarantee improved test results from purchasing the products of your organization.

Posted by: bsallamack | August 3, 2010 4:01 PM | Report abuse

How do all these comments about the New York State Regents and other tests used in New York fit in ...

Posted by: sideswiththekids
It was New York State that decided to look into the problem of tests. New York State saw that the tests had been made too easy by changes in 2006.

The Regents adjusted the tests results to the standards before the changes.

This news shows that state standardized test can not be relied upon, and throws into question the entire Federal policy of relying upon state standardized tests in Race To The Top.

I have yet to see D.C. or Maryland to deal with the problem on their standardized tests, and the action of New York State was unusual in its honesty.

Articles in New York Times regarding the actions of the New York State Reagents.

Standards Raised, More Students Fail Tests
Confusion on Where City Students Stand
When 81% Passing Suddenly Becomes 18%

Posted by: bsallamack | August 3, 2010 4:22 PM | Report abuse

I graduated from a public NYS HS and SUNY Geneseo with departmental and GPA honors. I remember that at least while I was in school (1996-2000), the Regents exams were reasonable and if the student passed them, they could be expected to do well in college assuming reasonable effort on the part of the student. What that means is that if a student passes the exams, and therefore graduates, if they put effort into college, they'll do well. If they graduate HS but don't put any effort into college, they may or may not pass (depends on the student).

Because I went to a combination of various private schools and home schooling for my elementary/middle school years, I can't comment on those exams. What it sounds like is that there is a big divide in what the 3-8 scores show and the same kid's ability to do well on the HS exams and graduate.

I agree with the author that if underprivileged parents' only exposure to educational standards is these exams, if the kid is "passing" then he/she should be passing in HS if they continue on the same path at the same pace, and the end of this path should be college or job readiness. It is cruel to say to a poor parent and student that although they've done "well" according to state exams, they are not college/job ready when they complete their education.

Posted by: JesusFreakKaren | August 4, 2010 5:01 PM | Report abuse

rpondiscio writes:

"Establish high and meaningful standards and boxcar numbers of children will not measure up now or in the forseeable future."

Low income chilren will have "earned a place at the table"

How on earth can you claim to support "high standards"(whatever that means) and then get angry when kids meat the current ones? How can you define who is "college ready"? The reason why many kids drop out of college is that they're given courses that are at a higher grade level or in a major that isn't for them. For example, because there are more college ready kids than seats available in colleges, freshman have to be advised by a counselor in order to get the classes they want. A history major might not get the introductory courses such as political science or english that they should be in because the colleges have limited the spaces in order to save and make money at the same time by not hiring as many teachers and avoiding the usual charges of "grade inflation". The problem is the college's lack of organizational coherence, which occurs all over the world.

The author asserts that we should make the standardized tests "meaningful". Is being "meaningful" making large numbers of students fail it? What if the tests are norm-referenced, meaning that not everyone can do well no matter how well they were taught? I believe that the New York Regent's Exam is norm-referenced as are most other state exams. Fifty percent of the students who take these exams will always fall below the median and fifty percent will always score above it. The complaints about the ITBS score drops in Iowa that occured in the sixties that are often cited by people such as rpondiscio to argue about "declining standards" occured because more lower income students were taking the tests at that time. Many of these students even attended private schools and yet still scored low for the simple reason that the tests are DESIGNED to yield a bell-shaped curve distribution of scores so as to benefit the the students who are similar in socioeconomic status to the test makers themselves, regardless of what they actually know.

Studies have shown that college grades can predict less than three percent of the variance in job performance after graduation and high school grades can predict less than two percent of college grade variance with no predictive power for job performance. Grades are, by definition, subjective. A high GPA in either college or high school doesn't indicate proficiency in anything and neither does standardized test scores.
It is interesting that rpondiscio and fellow conservative analysts such as Diane Ravitch complain about a lack of "standards" and "accountability" when the emphasis on testing and is precisely what has been responsible for dumbing down our kids.

The Core Knowledge Foundation was set up to produce higher scores on the tests that that are being attacked, which raises questions about rpondiscio's credibility and motives.

Posted by: AlexKB | August 10, 2010 12:04 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company