Easy test leaves Maryland behind

October 18, 2007|By Liam Julian

The No Child Left Behind law, which is up for reauthorization, is suffering. Its logistical problems are legion. Two are worth noting, because their consequences in Maryland are immense.

First problem: No Child Left Behind expects all children - 100 percent - to reach reading and math "proficiency" by 2014. The problem, of course, is that this simply isn't going to happen. No policymaker has the guts to offer a more manageable goal, however.

Second problem: No Child Left Behind holds states accountable for student achievement, but allows individual states to decide how student achievement will be measured. That means each state has its own test, and these tests vary greatly in difficulty from one state to the next. Maryland's test is pretty bad.

A recent report of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, "The Proficiency Illusion," examined Maryland students' scores on the state test compared with their scores on another national assessment. The study found that the "cut scores" (those needed to achieve "proficiency" under No Child Left Behind) of Maryland's test were set very low. Out of 26 states evaluated, Maryland's test was 22nd in difficulty.

But Maryland's assistant state superintendent for accountability and assessment, Leslie A. Wilson, doesn't see a problem with that. She said, "We think our cut scores are reasonable for what people are being asked to do by 2014, especially given that it's for all subgroups - students who don't speak English or students with special needs." In effect, Ms. Wilson believes that because No Child Left Behind's targets are so unreachable, it's OK to set Maryland's standards low. Otherwise, she thinks, the Old Line State will be penalized for not reaching an unattainable level of proficiency.

Maryland is able to create a laughably easy test, and it's motivated to do so by No Child Left Behind's dreamy ideas about 2014. But this doesn't mean Maryland parents should excuse Ms. Wilson's attitude. Some states - Massachusetts, for example - have made their tests challenging in spite of pressures to do otherwise. And guess what? Massachusetts has the highest-performing students in the nation, because officials in Boston are holding those students to high but realistic standards.

Unfortunately, Maryland officials aren't nearly as courageous. They'd rather make their tests easy and make the definition of "proficient" meaningless, so that it appears that their state is doing a good job educating its students.

No Child Left Behind made a pledge to parents that they would get an annual snapshot of how their students are doing in school, as well as an honest appraisal of how their local schools and school systems are faring.

But Maryland parents may not know that their state set its proficiency passing score among the lowest in the land. So their children may be "proficient" in math and reading in the eyes of state education bureaucrats, but they still could have scored worse than almost all other students in the country.

This is a glum situation, for which we have two guilty parties to thank.

The federal government was foolish to allow individual states to construct their own tests. On top of that, the feds set an unreasonable goal that encouraged states such as Maryland to make their tests easy, rendering them essentially meaningless.

And the state officials should be ashamed that they've set their standards so low. By artificially raising the test scores of Maryland's students, they may have saved themselves a lot of hard work, but they did so by denying an honest, rigorous measure of achievement to the state's students.

Liam Julian is an associate writer and editor at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and a research fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution. His e-mail is ljulian@edexcellence.net.

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