More insight from a testing expert

Here are the follow-on comments from Professor Russell T. Warne that I promised in my last posting:

“The idea that NCLB has helped some groups of students (especially low performing students) is supported by the closing score gaps we’ve seen on NAEP since 2001. In grade 4 US history, for example, White students have seen a 7 point increase, Black students a 12 point increase, and Hispanic students a 14 point increase. Similar increases are also reported for grade 8, although not grade 12. If you look at the NAEP trends for math and reading in grades 4 and 8, you’ll see similar results.

Diane Ravitch is probably correct that NCLB-driven gains in reading have probably boosted U.S. history scores more than an increase in teaching U.S. history. This is mostly because being able to comprehend written text is a HUGE prerequisite to success in so many other subjects: history, science, civics, etc. We should expect to see this “spillover effect” (my own term), but only if reading achievement gains represent actual learning. If reading score gains were due to becoming more savvy with the reading test, then we wouldn’t expect students to be equally savvy with the history test–especially because NAEP has no consequences for teachers or students. (Why would you spend time gaming a test–like NAEP–that has no stakes attached to it? What would be the point? Wouldn’t you rather spend your time on something else?) We also wouldn’t expect the gains to be greatest for students who are struggling the most.

So, if NCLB is so great, why don’t grade 12 students–who have spent almost all of their time under the NCLB regime–show any gains? The simple answer is that NCLB focuses on basic proficiency. Many states’ tests only test the absolute minimum that is expected for a child to know, whereas NAEP tests a wide range of knowledge and abilities. Thus, NAEP is better able than many state tests to show that “proficient” students have stagnant increases in learning because on state tests these same students are getting high scores–because those tests are easier. I don’t know what the situation is in Utah (I have a steep learning curve when I get there), but in Texas, the state 11th grade subject tests–which students MUST pass before they can graduate from high school–are written at the 8th grade level. So, when NAEP asks questions at their grade level, the students are often much less prepared for NAEP than they were when they were younger.

Also, teachers and schools aren’t incentivized by NCLB to increase learning among their students who are already proficient. This encourages them to concentrate on kids below proficiency levels, especially those who are just barely below the standard and have a fighting chance at passing the test if they get special tutoring or other help. (In the literature and popular parlance in Texas, these are called the “bubble kids.”) This explains why White students have smaller score gains since NCLB passed and why lower ability students–of all races–have much larger gains than high ability students. (Look at the gains as separated by percentile ranks. You’ll see that the bottom kids are the real ones who had a “race to the top.”) This latter trend is a big issue in gifted education circles. So, NCLB still has its flaws, but to throw the baby (narrowing score gaps, achievement gains) out with the bathwater (some groups neglected, school personnel not liking the tests) would be foolish.

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