Inside the Law
State Proficiency Standards Vary
According to the authors of "The Proficiency Illusion," a new report from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA), those who care about strengthening U.S. K12 education "should be furious."
The study outlines the variation of difficulty in state tests under the federal No Child Left Behind law and finds that the degree of variance is so high-not just between states but between grade levels at individual schools-that results on the state tests are creating a false impression of success, particularly in reading and in the early grades.
The report's primary findings are alarming. They include: state tests vary greatly in their difficulty; most state tests have not changed in difficulty in recent years; improvements in passing rates on state tests can largely be explained by declines in the difficulty of those tests; mathematics tests are consistently more difficult to pass than reading tests; and eighth-grade tests are consistently and dramatically more difficult to pass than those in earlier grades (taking into account obvious diff erences in subject-matter complexity and children's academic development).
To compare proficiency standards across states and against a uniform scale, the report used a mapping exercise to project state "cut scores," or the level needed to pass the test for NCLB, onto the scale used by the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP), a computer adaptive test used by all states except West Virginia. The NWEA researchers used the point on state tests at which 70 percent of the study group performed at or above the cut score and compared it to the point on the MAP scale that was met or exceeded by 70 percent of the study group.
The report's authors say the decision to use the MAP test over the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) was made because NAEP tests are only given at grades four, eight and twelve, and do not report individualor school-level results, which raise questions about the degree of motivation students bring to the assessment. The MAP examination, on the other hand, reports individual results to parents and is used by school systems for both instructional and accountability purposes, so there are incentives for students to perform well. The MAP is also aligned to individual states' curriculum standards and calibrated to a uniform scale, according to John Cronin, an NWEA research specialist and one of the report's authors.
The complete report is available at www.edexcellence.net/institute.
No Car Keys for Truants in Maryland
A new state law punishing truancy in Maryland schools recently went into effect that denies a learner's permit to students younger than 16 who have more than 10 unexcused absences during the prior school semester.
All teenagers, whether they're in public or private schools or are home-schooled, must submit a certified, sealed attendance form to the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration as part of their application, says agency spokesman Buel Young.
But because Maryland teens must be at least 15 years and 9 months old before applying for a learner's permit, the new law and its short, four-month window of relevance is spurring doubt among educators that it will actually serve its purpose.
"It is a step in the right direction, but it's so watered down the positive effect is going to be minimal," says Bob D'Angelis, pupil personnel worker at Howard Public Schools in Ellicott City. He also notes that the law counts students' absences from the prior semester but not the current one.
Others see potential in the law's ability, however small or large, to remedy the state's issues with truancy and are eager to utilize it.
Bill Reinhard, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Education, says the state embraces the law and its goals.
A state report says more than 10 percent of Baltimore students were habitually absent during the 2005-2006 school year.