Original URL: http://www.azcentral.com/news/articles/1231testing-ON.html

Feds states disagree over how to measure student proficiency
New York Times News Service
Dec. 31, 2003 06:15 PM

The community around South Charlotte Middle School is one of the richest in North Carolina, and the school boasts the kind of test scores that seem to go hand in hand with wealth. Last year, more than 95 percent of its students passed both the state reading and mathematics tests.

A few miles away in a
similarly wealthy community, the students at Fort Mill Middle School cannot make the same claim. More than half failed the state mathematics test, and three-quarters failed the reading test.

The difference? Fort Mill Middle School is in South Carolina.

Two recent studies show that such anomalies are widespread, as states have set widely different standards for measuring students' progress under the federal education law known as No Child Left Behind. Three-quarters of children across the country would fail South Carolina's tough fifth-grade test, one study shows, while seven out of eight would ace the third-grade tests in Colorado and Texas.

The two studies, one by a nonprofit Oregon testing company and the other by a Washington public interest group, take different routes to reach a similar conclusion: Across the country, there is no agreement on how much students need to know to be considered proficient.

"It means parents and students are getting very different signals about what it means to be well educated, what it means to be prepared when you leave school," said Michael Cohen, president of Achieve Inc., a nonprofit school reform group in Washington that released a study of state standards in November.

The divergent standards also have ramifications under the federal education law, passed in 2001. Schools deemed failures eventually face stern consequences, including loss of students and reorganization. And in some states with high standards there could be lots of failing schools. In other states with low standards, schools with equally poor performance could be left alone.

The studies come as states begin to chafe at the demands and inconsistencies of the education law. Last month, Public Agenda, a nonprofit public opinion research group, released results of a survey that said school principals and superintendents were deeply suspicious of the law and that most think it will not work without changes.

Some experts agree.

"If it's not changed, it will collapse of its own weight," said Robert L. Linn, co-director of the Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing at the University of Colorado. "I think a lot of people already realize that, but they're waiting for a politically viable time to make the adjustments."

Officials at the U. S. Department of Education disagreed. "The states are free to set their own standards to meet the needs of children in their states," said Ron Tomalis, acting assistant secretary in the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education. "Communities may say we want to have higher standards. Communities may say we've set it way too high, we may want to set it down lower toward the norm."

The Northwest Evaluation study was based on scores of students in 14 states who took both the state proficiency test and one of the organization's tests.

Colorado's reading test was consistently the least demanding in most grades in which it was given, with a passing score that corresponded to a national ranking between the 9th and 18th percentile. South Carolina and Wyoming had passing scores in the 70th percentile and higher in most grades.

The study by Achieve Inc., a nonprofit group that promotes high education standards, compared the number of students the states had declared proficient under their No Child Left Behind testing structure with the number at the "proficient" level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test given in all 50 states. It showed Louisiana, South Carolina and Wyoming setting some of the highest standards, with Texas, North Carolina and Mississippi setting some of the lowest.

Texas, whose students' apparent progress on a state test in the 1990s helped pave the way for No Child Left Behind, was near the bottom in both studies, even though it started using what it said was a more difficult test last year.

In South Carolina, more than 75 percent of the state's schools failed to make the progress required by the federal education law this year, far more than the 3 percent Alabama reported, or the 8 percent reported by Texas. One of them was Fort Mill Middle School.

Inez Tenenbaum, South Carolina's superintendent of education, said, "We don't want to lower our standards," and added, "We think everyone ought to have as high a standard as we do." But, she said, "There ought to be some national clearinghouse so we can have a comparative measure."