Suspicious Standards

The primary belief underlying the No Child Left Behind Act – and much state-driven education reform – is that if governments set academic standards and then test students’ mastery of them, policymakers, parents, and the public will have the information they need to see how schools are doing and act on it. As Andrew Coulson and I explain in a new report on NCLB, however, that’s not how the belief has worked out in practice. Instead, most states have set low standards or used trickery to identify kids as “proficient” in math and reading when they’re really no such thing.

A report in the New York Daily News offers an interesting insight into one way by which such standards sliding can and has occurred, maybe intentionally, maybe not:

When test scores rise, politicians crow that schools are getting better, but a Daily News analysis of recent standardized math exams and a News experiment suggest another reason: The questions might be getting easier.

The News obtained technical details on high-stakes math tests given to fourth-graders across the state over the past six years and found that in every year when scores went up, testmakers had identified the questions as easier during pretest trials.

In years when scores were lower, pretest trials showed the questions were harder.

“That’s pretty strong evidence that something is just not right with the test,” said New York University Prof. Robert Tobias, who ran the Board of Education’s testing department for 13 years.

“If this were a single year’s data or two years’ data, I would say it would be inappropriate to make conclusions,” Tobias said. “But with the pattern over time …that’s prima facie evidence that something’s not right.”