Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Day -8: 60 Is the New 75

No, I'm not talking about ages. I'm talking about percentages.

Used to be that in order to score Proficient on my district's standardized trimester assessments in language arts and math, students had to get 75% of the questions on the tests right. About a month ago, however, some district administrators decided to change all that. Now, for this last trimester, students only have to get a score of 60% or higher to be considered Proficient.

Here are the old assessment guidelines we used:
0-59% = Far Below Basic/Below Basic
60-74% = Basic
75-89% = Proficient
90-100% = Advanced

Here are the new guidelines:
0-19% = Far Below Basic
20-39% = Below Basic
40-59% = Basic
60-79% = Proficient
80-100% = Advanced

It's a pretty drastic change to make midyear! The change in the guidelines was allegedly made to better align district assessment results to state standardized test results. But students' scores on state tests don't correlate at all with the district tests evaluated using the new guidelines.

Last year, when my current students were in third grade, 12 of them scored Far Below Basic in Language Arts on the state standardized test. But according to the latest district trimester Language Arts test, none of my students are considered Far Below Basic. In third grade, only one of my students scored Proficient on the state Language Arts test. But according to the latest district trimester Language Arts test, 10 of my students are now considered Proficient.

Of course I expect some students' state standardized test scores to be better than they were last year, but I can almost guarantee my students' state scores will not improve as dramatically as their district scores might suggest.

The state Department of Education shifts what percentage of questions students must get right to score Proficient each year, depending on the difficulty of test questions and other factors. They don't make it easy to figure out what the cutoff for that magic score of Proficient is. I went through all of my students' test results, though, and wrote down the percent of questions they got correct and their performance levels. As best I could figure out, for the 2006 3rd grade Language Arts test, here are the guidelines:

0 - ~36% = Far Below Basic
~37 - ~53% = Below Basic
~54 - ~72% = Basic

I can't tell what the cutoffs were for Proficient and Advanced because I only had one student score at these performance levels. He got 78% correct, which was reported as Proficient.

Even though my data are incomplete, it's clear to me that the district's new guidelines do not align at all with state guidelines. The state has lots and lots of well-trained people thinking about what should count as Proficient and using real statistical models to ensure reliability across grade levels and years - or at least that's what I assume. Our little district cannot hope to reproduce this.

Last year, a question on a district math assessment read as follows: "Four boys shared 38 pennies as equally as possible. How many pennies did each boy get?" The only possible answers listed were 8, 10, 12, and 6. What do you think the correct answer is? At least there aren't any questions as bad as that one on this year's assessments. But still, I hate how standardized test scores gain this mythic status as unbiased, objective, and reliable, when how students do depends totally on how hard the questions are and the scale used for their scores.

Letting a student who scores 60% on a pretty easy test be considered Proficient during this last trimester does not seem a step in any kind of right direction. Especially when that same score of 60% on the same kind of test was reported as Basic on that student's report card earlier this year. What parent wouldn't assume that their child improved markedly when seeing the jump from Basic to Proficient? But really it's just the bar that moved, not the child.

Ever wonder how all students are going to score Proficient in Language Arts and Math by 2014, as mandated under No Child Left Behind? Here's your answer. Just lower the bar.

Time magazine actually has a cover story this week about No Child Left Behind, which talks about this same problem at a national level. State test results often don't correlate with national test results. Students in California score 15 percentage points lower on the national reading test than they do on the state test - which is nothing compared to students in Alabama, who score 48 points lower on than national test than the state test. So just what does Proficient mean? And who gets to decide?


La Maestra said...

For more on this problem at a national level, see this NYTimes article.

Mark said...

Fantastic post! Here in my state, 55 is the new 75. Hey, if no one can be left behind, we'd better keep making the bar lower, right? Forgive me for this link, but you've got to read a post on my blog that decsribes the same type of thing happening in Michigan: http://mrpullen.wordpress.com/2007/04/05/the-follies-of-testing/

Mike said...

Should we be at all surprised when everything we do in service to NCLB and/or mandatory, high stakes testing has to do with politics rather than education? In education, 60% mastery isn't mastery at all. But in politics, up is down, black is white, and failing is passing, so long as that particular sound bite serves the current agenda.

Just sit back, do what you have to do, appreciate the irony and try to enjoy the ride.