Tag: test results

New National Test Results Released Today

The U.S. Department of Education has just released 2013 results for the National Assessment of Educational Progress—aka, “The Nation’s Report Card.” The scores are for 12th grade reading and mathematics, and neither has changed since the last time they were administered a few years ago. But of course what we really want to know is how well students are performing today compared to those of a generation or two ago. That would tell us if our education system were improving, staying the same, or declining in performance.

The trouble is, “The Nation’s Report Card” doesn’t go back very far.  The reading results reach back to 1992 (since which time, there has been a slight but statistically significant decline), but the math results only reach back to 2005 (since which time, there’s been a slight but statistically significant increase). It’s just not that long of a time period to assess trends.

Wouldn’t it be great if there were a different set of NAEP tests, called the “Long Term Trends” series, that reached back all the way to the early 1970s! And wouldn’t it be even better if we could find out how much we’ve spent per pupil over that same time period, so that we could figure out if our schools are getting more or less efficient with our dollars? Well, what do you know, there is, and we can!

But here’s the thing. Some people look at that national trend chart and think: but my state is doing much better than that! Is it? Is it really? I decided to find out, for all fifty states. The result is my recent, mysteriously-titled paper: State Education Trends. Drop by and check out how your state has done over the past 40 years.

[Note to readers: The state charts look at changes in annual per pupil spending over time, whereas the national chart above looks at the change over time in the total cost of a full K-through-12 education, so the spending trend lines are not directly comparable].

Science: ‘All Kids Different’

It didn’t get a lot of attention, but in last week’s State of the Union address President Obama celebrated the spread of national curriculum standards that’s been fueled largely by the federal Race to the Top. Of course, he didn’t actually call them “national standards” because no one is supposed to think that these are de facto federal standards that states have been bribed into adopting. The point, though, was clear to those in the know:

Race to the Top is the most meaningful reform of our public schools in a generation. For less than one percent of what we spend on education each year, it has led over 40 states to raise their standards for teaching and learning. These standards were developed, not by Washington, but by Republican and Democratic governors throughout the country.

Despite the celebration of national standards by both the President and lots of other supporters, there is essentially zero evidence that such standards will produce better educational outcomes.  Much of that has to do with the reality of democratically controlled, government education: Those who would be held accountable for getting kids to high standards have the most clout in education politics, and they naturally fight tough standards. It also has a lot to do with human reality: All kids are different. It’s an inescapable observation for anyone who has ever encountered more than one child, but the national-standards crowd prefers to ignore it.

Maybe science will help them see the light. According to the BBC, new research comparing identical and fraternal twins reveals that genetics – something that exists before standards and schooling – has a lot to do with how much and how quickly someone learns:

The researchers examined the test results of 12-year-old twins - identical and fraternal - in English, maths and science.

They found the identical twins, who share their genetic make-up, did more similarly in the tests than the fraternal twins, who share half their genetic make-up.

The report said: “The results were striking, indicating that even when previous achievement and a child’s general cognitive ability are both removed, the residual achievement measure is still significantly influenced by genetic factors.”

In light of this confirmation of the obvious, isn’t it clear that a single timeline for what all children should know and when they should know it makes little sense? And doesn’t it point to the best system being one that gives kids individualized attention?

Of course it does, but that would require “experts” of all stripes to stop trying to impose their solutions on all children. It would also, ultimately, necessitate a system in which parents would choose what’s best for their children, and educators would specialize in all sorts of different curricula, delivery mechanisms, and teaching techniques.  

Unfortunately, few in the education policy world are willing to adopt that utterly logical – but power relinquishing – solution.

Test Cheating by National Education Standards Agency

When you erase a test score and write in a new one for your own benefit, that’s cheating, right? So what is it when you do this several thousand times?

Ofqual, the British education standards regulator, “secretly downgraded the GCSE [General Certificate of Secondary Education test] results of thousands of pupils to avoid public fury over dumbed-down tests,” reports the Daily Mail. “Fearing a row over inflated results, Ofqual’s chief executive ordered all exam boards to cut the number of pupils getting top scores just two days before marks were finalized.”

The argument for national education standards is based on a host of unexamined and incorrect assumptions. One is the belief that the authorities overseeing such standards (and associated testing) will have truth and transparency as their only motivations. As the above example illustrates, that’s rubbish. Bureaucrats and politicians are as self-interested as the rest of humanity, and they do, in practice, consult their own interests in the execution of their duties.

The way to deal with this reality is not to ignore it – as national standards advocates and other statists are wont to do – but rather to adopt systems for structuring human action that take it into consideration. In the context of education standards, that means leaving the standards-setting process to the competitive marketplace: make it easy for all families to choose whatever schools they deem best, allow schools to administer whatever curriculum and whatever tests they want, and allow higher ed and employers to weigh the value of the various standards and certifications that arise. Lousy standards that don’t reflect real achievement won’t be valued, good ones that do will be.

National standards advocates are right that children should be encouraged to do their best and that every child’s diploma should really mean something. But that doesn’t mean that every diploma has to mean the same thing. A competitive marketplace for education standards and testing would ensure both quality and relevance, while also allowing for the fact that very different students heading toward very different futures may want to strive to excel in different areas.

For a detailed account of the evidence on national standards and its alternatives, see Neal McCluskey’s excellent recent policy analysis on the subject, linked here.