Article published in The Roanoke (VA) Times
If the standardized test results known as “The Nation’s Report Card,” released this week, were a report card your own child brought home from school, how would you react?
Nationally, to be sure, it is a report card more likely to get its owner more time studying and less time watching television and going to the mall. But it has bright spots that deserve recognition, too.
Virginia’s students scored well above average, and were once again among the highest scores in the nation. At the fourth grade level, only four states outperformed Virginia in reading, and only six states did so in math. At the eighth grade level Virginia remained well above average, falling just a few states back into the pack.
What Virginia students, as a whole, failed to do on this latest test was to improve. Their scores in fourth grade reading and math were not considered statistical improvements over their scores from four years ago, and eighth grade reading scores actually slipped slightly.
More impressive was that Virginia’s African-American and Latino students, as well as students from economically disadvantaged households and English Language Learners, all showed steady growth over both the national averages, and over their 2003 and 2005 scores.
The gains by Virginia’s English Learners are of particular note, because Virginia has pushed hard for extra testing flexibility for these students when it comes to national requirements as part of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).
Nationwide, scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) improved, modestly but significantly, among fourth graders in both reading and math. In math, 39 percent of fourth graders nationally scored at or above Proficient. Meanwhile 82 percent scored at or above Basic or above, up from 65 percent just 7 years ago. African-American, Latino and students from financially disadvantaged households posted the strongest gains.
“These results refute the false premise that increased attention to our lowest-performing students means that progress among higher achievers must be sacrificed,” observed Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust. “Learning is not a zero-sum game.”
These latest results confirmed that troubling achievement gaps remain between white children and their African-American and Latino classmates. But the gaps can no longer be described as growing, and in fact in most cases are getting smaller, at least in the early years of school. The percentage of Latino fourth graders scoring below a Basic achievement level in math was 31 percent, compared with 37 percent for African-Americans and 19 percent of all students combined, according to data gathered by the Education Trust.
These results arrive just as Congress is in the thick of deliberating the future of NCLB. Both supporters and critics of the law have been quick to claim their own positions bolstered by the results on NAEP, which is administered independently of NCLB and under nonpartisan auspices.
The way the law is structured, it is up to states to set their own standards for defining what levels of student achievement they deem Proficient. Standards for students achieving proficiency on the NAEP are generally higher than those used by most states, according to one federal Department of Education official. This creates a climate where it is becomingly tempting for state officials to seek to simply manipulate their standards lower to artificially mimic better results. So it is increasingly essential that parents, educators and others who care about education quality ensure that such negligent trickery not be tolerated.
One of the big unknowns remains the extent to which test-score improvements in the low and middle grades will stick through high school. After all, fourth- and eighth-graders are not presenting themselves to colleges and employers. High school seniors are.
Perhaps the good-looking scores on NAEP’s 2007 benchmark exam of young children presage rising achievement levels as those children go through school and eventually earn high school diplomas. That is the hope.
One thing seems certain: As Congress deliberates the future of NCLB, any new measures that dilute accountability for results could hardly come at a worse time.
Find Archived Articles: