Proficiency should mean college ready—and an acceptance letter
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.
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| 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
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