Johnny Still Can’t Read
Are the nation’s politicians so obsessive about remaining in office that they are willing to compromise the educational process through distortion and misrepresentation? Of course they are — after all, the phrase “honest politician” has always been viewed as an oxymoron. You may recall a recent six-part article in this blog titled “Are We Losing the War for Innovation?” Its conclusion was, whereas the 20 th century went down in history as the “American Century,” the consequences of a failing educational system as well as a major demographic shift will prevent America from a repeat performance in the 21 st century.
The Innovation article emphasized the fact that unlike the last century, we are now competing in a “Flat World,” as Thomas Friedman terms it — a global economy that values knowledge workers with high level educational skills. Our educational performance is not only failing to keep up with the increasing standards of countries on a world-wide basis, our students can’t even match test score averages of their counterparts from 15 years ago — regression instead of progress.
But wait a minute! Hold it right here! That statement can’t be true. One recent federal government report that came out in late February of this year, described the results of tests that measured the performance of 12 th graders. The results were quite encouraging, showing the Grade Performance Average (GPA) had risen appreciably from 2.68 in 1990 to 2.98 in 2005 (the latest year) — close to a solid B. So, things are not as bleak as some might think, right? Wrong!
For one, the above results did not take into account the fact that a startling 30 percent of students failed to even graduate from high school and thus the test scores obviously are overstated when applied to all high school students. The larger problem was that the above statistics were included in one of two reports issued by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), and the second report essentially refuted the reliability of the GPA scores. The second report, popularly known as the “National Report Card” is based on the only consistent test given nationwide to a representative sample of 21,000 high school seniors attending 900 public and private schools.
This report was more than disappointing since it exposes an educational system-wide failure that has occurred over the past two decades. It also raises the question as to whether efforts to raise school standards have been nothing more than political posturing.
Some of the numbers are stunning. For example, the share of students lacking even basic high school reading skills rose from an abominable 20 percent in 1992 to an even worse 27 percent; and an overwhelming majority of high school students have not mastered high school level math. Unfortunately, the major decline in reading since 1992 occurred in scores for Blacks and Hispanics students.
So here we have a major disconnect between the two reports. One shows a nation-wide average of high school graduates at the relatively high level of “B,” yet the NAEP reading and math scores belie that figure. However an even larger problem exists, one that has received little or no publicity — it relates to the basic or “core curriculum.” It is probable that just about every reader of this article was exposed to and completed this discipline, or an even more rigid format. It consists of four years of English, and three years of social studies, math, and science. Despite the fact that the number of graduates who had taken the full core curriculum almost doubled since 1990, the percentage today is a stunningly low 17 percent. Can you imagine that 83 percent of all high school graduates have been cheated out of a core education?
But the scandal worsens because of political misconduct. This is depicted clearly in the March 5 th issue of U.S. News & World Report that explains that the 2002 No Child Left Behind Law (NCLB) was supposed to insure that a child in California will leave schools “as well educated as their kids’ friends in Massachusetts.” In fact, according to U.S. News, “The federal law requires all states to draft standards — minimum expectations for each grade level — and annually assess how well those standards are being met. But critics of the law argue that all the tests that have followed have not clarified matters at all. Every state administers a different test tied to different standards, and few of the state standards seem to match national ideas about what kids should know.” Some states have even deliberately lowered standards when scores did not match expectations.
The article displays in graph form test scores as reported to NCLB from every state, and they range from a high of an 87 percent grade in Colorado and Mississippi to a low of about 27 percent in Missouri. Florida clocks in at about 60 percent. Once again however, those scores become more than suspect when compared to the state scores as recorded on the “National Report Card” referred to above. For example, the 87 percent score reported by Mississippi to NCLB is patently false when compared to its score as defined by NAEP of around 18. Think about it: The Mississippi state government calculates that it has the highest score in the nation based on its standards, but when tested against its peer state scores Mississippi has the second lowest rating in the country. Florida’s score is around 33, almost half the value of the NCLB test, and 24 th in the nation. In almost every case where both reports were listed, the NCLB score was greatly exaggerated.
The explanation for this disservice to the educational process is explained in the U.S. News article as follows: “Critics say No Child Left Behind is the source of the problem. To avoid labeling hundreds of schools ‘failing,’ they say states have simply lowered the definition of proficient, [better known as the ‘cut score’], to ensure more schools make the grade.” (The three score levels are, from high to low, Advanced, Proficient, Basic, and by default, Failure.) The NCLB law decrees that all schools must achieve 100 percent proficiency scores by 2014. Considering the lack of progress so far shown, and the willingness of state politicians to deliberately and shamefully misrepresent student performance will insure that the NCLB goal of all states meeting the 100 percent level in just seven more years is farcical and will fall way short.
Here is what The New York Times editorial page suggests as a solution: “Congress, which is preparing to reauthorize both the No Child Left Behind Act and the Higher Education Act, needs to take a hard look at these scores and move forcefully to demand far-reaching structural changes. It should start by getting the board that oversees The National Assessment of Educational Progress testing to create rigorous national standards for crucial subjects. It should also require the states to raise the bar for teacher qualifications and end the odious practice of supplying the neediest students with the least qualified teachers. This process would also include requiring teachers’ colleges, which get federal aid, to turn out higher quality graduates and to supply many more teachers in vital areas like math and science. If there’s any doubt about why these reforms are needed, all Congress has to do is read the latest national report card.”
Now do those recommendations sound outlandish to you? The suggestion to have the NAEP establish national standards would be a good starting point. I’m afraid however this would never be approved by the states (in other words, the politicians) who claim they have a right to establish standards as they see fit. Does anyone really believe these state (so-called) standards are providing America with the caliber of workers necessary to compete favorably in the newly forming global environment? Well, there’s always the 22 nd century.