W  H  A  T  S  U  I  T  S  H  I  M
launched 1 january 2016
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Essays from 2015

A Case for Stronger Alignment of State & National Assessments

Ah, the joys of childhood. Among them: scheduled naptimes, minimal responsibility, and the always-fun playful banter with friends.

Sometimes, that playful banter could become a bit harsh. One of the more harsh “jokes”? Being referred to as “basic.”

The term “basic” implies rudimentary knowledge. The premise of the insult has always been, “You’re not very smart.” Merriam-Webster defines basic as “forming or relating to the first or easiest part of something; not including anything extra.” According to the current achievement levels of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), Basic achievement is “partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at each grade,” while Proficient achievement “represents solid academic performance for each grade assessed. Students reaching this level have demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter, including subject-matter knowledge, application of such knowledge to real world situations, and analytical skills appropriate to the subject matter.” NAEP describes itself as “the largest nationally representative and continuing assessment of what America’s students know and can do in various subject areas,” with the National Assessment Governing Board — the overseers of “the content and operation of the [NAEP]” — expressing a belief that “all students should reach the Proficient level; the Basic level is not the desired goal, but rather represents partial mastery that is a step toward Proficient.”

However, the vast majority of state assessments fail to reach the benchmarks NAEP has set. My question to these states: Why not?

NAEP and its Governing Board have done and will continue to do amazing work. Achieve, an education reform organization dedicated to this work, published “Proficient vs. Prepared: Disparities Between State Tests and the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP),” a May 2015 report proving that NAEP exists as “the gold standard for measuring student achievement,” a standard state assessments are having difficulty meeting. While states use their respective assessments to tout student “proficiency,” NAEP serves as a stronger barometer for if these students will actually be prepared for their next steps. Assuming the numbers serve as a strong indicator, we can see students scoring at Proficient levels on their state examinations who are then scoring at Basic or below on the NAEP.

According to the 2013 NAEP scores, in my hometown of Detroit, Michigan, 45 percent of African American students scored at Basic levels as opposed to 8 percent scoring at Proficient — and zero percent scoring at Advanced. Further, 2013 Trial Urban District Snapshot Report for Detroit Public Schools, notes that the average NAEP score of eighth-grade students in Detroit was lower than the average score for public school students in comparable large cities. Consider, then, the 2013 scores of the Michigan Merit Exam (MME), which “assesses students in grade 11 and eligible students in grade 12 based on Michigan high school standards”: Only 1.4 percent of the students in Detroit Public Schools scored at Proficient in all subjects, but the four-year graduation rate that same year was nearly 65 percent. Both numbers are frighteningly low, but I want to focus on the fact that, in my hometown, proficiency is clearly not a benchmark for graduation. These statistics do little to assure me that in a city where 83 percent of citizens are African-American and nearly half of the adult population is considered “functionally illiterate,” the next generation will have a brighter future than their grandparents, parents, or even me and my friends.

Personal story time: Heading into eighth grade at Bates Academy ten (!) years ago, I began to consider which high school I’d like to attend. Many of my peers had their hearts set on Detroit’s top-two public high schools, Cass Tech and Renaissance. Familial ties bound me to Cass as a fallback option, but I’d gone all-in on attending Cranbrook Kingswood, a private school in a Detroit suburb. For some reason I’ve yet to discover, Cranbrook admitted me, but my high school years proved far more difficult than I anticipated. I feared I was overmatched, and the fact that I was being quantitatively outperformed by my friends who remained in Detroit Public Schools only heightened my anxiety. Fast-forward to college, and I found myself more than adequately prepared for post-secondary education. Contrast that with my peers, who consistently complained they felt ill-equipped to handle the rigor of college academics. Remember: these were students with high grade-point averages, students who were made to believe they would be prepared for college, university, or the workforce by virtue of receiving a high school diploma. This year, Detroit Public Schools reported a four-year graduation rate of 71 percent, but only 2.4 percent are scoring at Proficient on the MME. I know that 71 percent very well. But what are the odds I know the 2.4 percent who we can unequivocally say will be academically prepared for the next level?

I applaud the states who have joined the two consortiums committed to creating standardized testing that will theoretically level the playing field for all of our students. At present, 11 states plus the District of Columbia are members of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), and 18 states plus the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Bureau of Indian Education are participants in the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC). Both PARCC and SBAC are faithful in their mission to provide suitable assessments that “measure student progress against the [Common Core State] Standards,” and I trust they will continue working toward that goal. As the world becomes increasingly interconnected, it would be naïve for us to believe that each state creating its own student assessment in a bubble provides students with the best opportunity for future success. Scoring at Basic levels will never prepare students for a productive and successful future. Scoring below Proficient should not be tolerated under any circumstances, and NAEP’s achievement levels reflect that idea. “Partial mastery” is insufficient for success in postsecondary education, and although the results of many state assessments provide insight on their perception of Proficiency, we need to ensure that this also means students in these states are reaching NAEP’s “gold standard.” I am not arguing for a universal test, but I would like consistence among state assessments to provide us with the same information regarding our children.

Following NAEP’s standard would tell us completely and explicitly that our baseline is Proficient, and assuage my fears that students who grew up in communities like mine won’t be forced to enter a world where being “basic” won’t be good enough.