Educators and politicians rave about Maryland's public schools. And why shouldn't they? After all, Education Week, the nation's most widely circulated education newspaper, has ranked Maryland public schools in first place for the past four years.
But we who study public school achievement find, based on 2011 testing, that Massachusetts public schools are in first place, closely followed by New Jersey and Vermont, while Maryland is further back in sixth place. At least that's the conclusion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as the Nation's Report Card.
How could Education Week get this wrong? By its own description, the criteria on which states' public schools are judged involve six different statistics, but only one of them is a measure of student achievement. The other five are various kinds of "inputs," such as funding levels.
We believe it is misleading to judge the quality of anything based on inputs. Just as we would not judge athletes by what they ate or by how well they trained, we should not judge school quality based on much more than what their students achieve.
Let's look at eighth-grade student achievement, where we have the most reliable information. Maryland, according to the NAEP, has just about 40 percent of its eighth-grade public school students proficient in both mathematics and English language arts (reading). Thus, 60 percent of these children are below grade level. This is unacceptable.
By the time these children reach 12th grade, we estimate that approximately 28 percent will remain proficient. Thus, a large majority of Maryland's public high school graduates do not possess 12th-grade skills. Nevertheless, they receive diplomas attesting to 12th-grade competence. No wonder we label such diplomas "knockoffs."
This brings us to the topic that is usually labeled "social promotion," in which sub-proficient students are nevertheless promoted under the theory that retaining them would be harmful to their social relationships. To the contrary, we contend that social promotion is done to save money. It's the inexpensive alternative to helping the slow learners master grade-level skills. It's cheaper to "push" them through the system and, if they behave themselves, give them a diploma at the end of 12th grade.
This suggests that "social promotion" is an inappropriate label. A more descriptive term is "unwarranted promotion."
In our view, there are two principal causes of unwarranted promotion: testing against lax standards and cheating. Both are encouraged by the desire to look good. And both are facilitated by the conflict of interest inherent in making the schools responsible for both instruction and testing.
To resolve that conflict, we propose establishing independent agencies that would conduct the testing, auditing, proctoring, retention and certification functions, while leaving the instructional responsibilities with the schools. Doing so would end or greatly reduce the conflicts of interest. And most relevant to our concerns, these agencies would be required to end unwarranted promotion.
The effects on the schools would be disruptive, but then the schools will have recourse to new, affordable technologies and methodologies to enable them to do a much better job bringing sub-proficient students to grade level.
These proposals are not really new. Consider high school AP courses. They are tested independently. So are the SAT and ACT examinations. Other examples abound in the professions of law, medicine and accountancy, where the certification testing is separate.
We think our proposals would help reduce the problems and irregularities now found in the testing, promotion and certification of students. We are confident that ending the conflict of interest posed by having the instruction and testing done by the same organization will end much mischief and at the same time encourage a reduction in the costs of K-12 education.
And why now? We think that the development of cost-effective technologies and methodologies for remedial instruction have removed the conventional excuses used to justify unwarranted promotion. We can end it — or at least significantly reduce it.
We can foresee diplomas that mean what they say. No longer will they be the cheap counterfeits we see today. They'll be knockoffs no longer.
David Anderson, the CEO of Asora Education Enterprises, is a fellow of the American Physical Society and a retired research physicist of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Herbert Walberg is Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Stanford University Hoover Institution and author of "Tests, Testing, and Genuine School Reform." His email is email@example.com.