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Basic or proficient?

Whatever else I may think about Washington, D.C., and the feds, I have to admit that the vast bureaucracies there include a relatively small number of unrecognized folks who do excellent bean-counting and publishing. From the Statistical Abstract of the U.S. to the decennial census reports, from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to the U.S. Agriculture and Food Policy reviews of the USDA, almost anything you might want to know is there in numerical form. The U.S. Department of Education is no exception: its annual National Digest of Educational Statistics (NDES) is a treasure trove of national and state-by-state data on every aspect of the Horace Mann industrial behemoth from per-pupil annual costs to p/t and p/s ratios, from the percent of spending allocated to actual front-line teaching to the test scores of students in such disciplines as math and reading. Just about everything is published over long-time periods, so a reader can see how spending has gone up or down (always up) while enrollments have gone up or down and class sizes have gone up or down (always down) and student achievement levels have gone up or down (not much) over the last 30-some odd years. Since their inception in 1969, the federal student achievement test resultsthe National Assessment of Educational Progresshavent changed much. For example, you can turn to page 203, Table 118. Average Scale Score in Mathematics, in the 2005 NDES, and see that all 9-year-olds (4th graders) were averaging 219 out of a possible 500 in 1973 and 241 in 2004. Similarly, 13-year-olds (8th graders) were scoring 266 in 1973, 281 in 2004. And 17-year-olds (12th graders) were making 304 in 1973, 307 in 2004. Vermont students didnt fare much different from those in other states: in 8th grade reading, for example, the Vermont line on Table 113 is blank for 1998 (Vermont data frequently dont get into the NDES) and shows a score of 272 (out of 500) for 2002, by 2005 its down to 269. The national average for 2005 was 260. When Vermont students are making 227 out of a possible 500 on the NAEP test for 4th grade reading, (and their State-preferred NECAP test equivalent score is 215, although its publicized as showing a much higher proficiency level, how many are actually reaching the proficient level required for all students by 2014? Only 39 percent, Table 112 says. Similarly, the Vermont NAEP\NECAP equivalent score in 4th grade math is 236, a point below the actual (2005) national 237. It also says that 72 percent are making basic or above in reading and 87 percent in math, which explains the decision at (or on the way to) the 2007 Nashville educators Forum to equate proficient with basic so as to show plausible compliance with the all-students-proficient-by-2014 requirement. But then, if basic is to become the new standard of achievement, its worth looking at what basic really means. A footnote to Table 112 explains: basic is something called partial mastery. Here are the full definitions for basic and proficient: Basic: The basic level denotes partial mastery of the knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at the 4th grade level. Proficient: This level represents solid academic performance for 4th graders. Students reaching this level have demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter. How could so many of us mentieni/mentienae have gotten the silly idea that NCLB proficient equates to NAEP proficient? The Forum report lists those of us dummies guilty of wrong-think, in think-tank organizations ranging from the Brookings Institution on the Left to the Hoover Institute on the Right, and the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing in the middle, accusing us of either intentional or incompetent misinterpretation. Ominously, a footnote to the list of 9 such dummy-enclaves adds: This list is illustrative, not exhaustive. Read it for yourself on page 4 of An Explanation for the Large Differences between State and NAEP Proficiency Scores Reported for 2005, the report coming from the 2007 Nashville Forum. Beyond my apparently numbskull assumption that proficient always means proficient, I seem to have gotten something else wrong, as well. Now it looks as if some funny things happened, not only on the way to, and at, the Forum, but in the official write-up afterwards. Former Vermonter Martin Harris lives in Tennessee.

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