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Fordham: Proficiency Levels Too Low in Early Grades

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I'm a little late to comment on The Proficiency Illusion, released yesterday by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. Most of the media coverage (see here, here, and here) and blog comments (see here and here) have focused on the wide variation in states' definition of proficiency. That's something that has been evident for a while.

But there's one other significant finding in the report that has been overlooked: Proficiency appears to be significantly easier to attain in the early grades than in middle school and high school. That may be one of the reasons why Title I middle schools are failing to make AYP at a higher rate than elementary schools, the GAO says in this report. (See pages 17-18.)

The differences in proficiency across grades has implications for the reauthorized NCLB. If states are going to create standards tied to college and workplace readiness (as has been discussed here and here), the biggest changes in the definition of proficiency may happen at the lower grades. For all of the focus on high school reform in recent years, this report suggests that there's a lot of work to be done on the elementary level as well.

Bonus link: Here's Fordham's head honcho opining about the report in today's Wall Street Journal. (Subscription required.) He says the report means the United States should have national standards. No surprise there.

Bonus personal anecdote: Last year, when my oldest son's scores on Virginia's 3rd grade tests arrived, I thought: "Wow, he's brilliant." After a conversations with other parents, though, I concluded that the tests were extremely easy. Lots of kids aced them. When my son's 4th grade scores arrived this summer, he did well, but not nearly as well as the year before. I see no evidence that his intelligence, skills, or mastery of the material changed between 3rd grade and 4th grade. I think it's the test. Have other parents had this experience?

1 Comment

I have two girls in VA schools - one just graduated. I would echo that the SOL exams are not overly challenging but would also give Virginia a lot of credit. The SOL exams are aligned to the student standards (thus the unfortunate acronym for Standards of Learning). The teachers teach to the standards and, by default, teach to the test. Therefore the students should perform better. My own experience mirrors yours – my daughters are taught to a set of standards that are aligned to the test and therefore do well on the tests.

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