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Friday Guest Column: What's "Good" About Meeting Student Achievement Standards?

"Mission Smarts" is Jason Cascarino, Manager of Program Investments for The Chicago Public Education Fund. The opinions expressed are the author’s alone.

Sometimes professional becomes personal. Which leads me to one of my more personal columns in this series. As a new father, the issues in education I am challenged with daily in my work have begun to hit home. As I sit behind my desk, my mental space now has the backdrop of a little boy one day galloping off to Lincoln Elementary School three blocks from our house in Oak Park, Illinois.

A while back, I read with great interest a front-page article in The Wednesday Journal, our community weekly, with the exclamatory headline that Oak Park School District 97 “meets state standards.” Here’s the quick summary: in 2007 85.0 percent, 88.1 percent, and 86.4 percent of students met or exceeded state standards on the Illinois state standardized exam, the ISAT, for reading, math, and science respectively. The subtitle, “ISAT scores show mixed results for black students” effectively captured an important contraindication of success for this moderately diverse, reasonably affluent close suburb of Chicago.

But as worrisome as that subhead might be, a more basic storyline was missing entirely. It generally is reporting studenting on achievement data, regardless of community. Namely, is “meeting” state standards “good?”

Having just moved to Oak Park and my son being still an infant, I actually know far less about our local public schools than I know about those in the City of Chicago where I work in the business of school reform. Like Oak Park, the city has reported positive gains in student achievement over the last few years, as measured by scores on the ISAT. And also like Oak Park, and like all other school districts in the country as required by No Child Left Behind, the Chicago Public Schools publishes the percent of students meeting or exceeding state standards. These standards are set by the state and are designed to demonstrate the point at which students are “proficient” in the core subjects of math, reading, and science.

The problem lies with where that bar is set. I’ve had numerous conversations with my peers working in education in various capacities throughout Chicago and it is commonly understood that meeting Illinois state proficiency standards is not sufficient for students to be successful in life - well prepared for higher education and/or the workforce!

Students need to be exceed these baseline school accountability standards to have a good shot at long-term academic and life success. The Consortium on Chicago School Research, the city’s premier education research institute associated with the University of Chicago, has begun to publish data bearing this out. Meanwhile, this nascent and behind-the-scenes sentiment got a public articulation recently in the form of a study released by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute called “The Proficiency Illusion.”

Unfortunately, according to the study, Illinois’s standards for proficiency on the ISAT rank toward the bottom among the 26 states profiled in the report. The report provides a good deal of detail behind this assertion, but the critical summary point reads: “most of Illinois’s definitions of proficiency in reading and mathematics are lower than those of most of the other 25 states in this study. In other words, Illinois’s tests are below average in terms of difficulty, especially in math.” It goes on to note that the level of difficulty of Illinois exams has actually declined dramatically in the past few years.

In Chicago, if you separate the percent of students who exceed standards from the percent who just meet standards, you’ll find the former to be a dramatically lower number. Now, the point is NOT to say how terribly underperforming Chicago students are. Rather, it is to demonstrate that when a district or newspaper reports a large percentage of students meet a standard without noting the level of difficulty or ease in meeting that standard it can skew public - including parent, perceptions that students are performing at levels predictive of long-term academic and life success when they are not.

District 97, which will eventually educate my son, is not being dishonest. I have no specific bone to pick, just a broad comment to make. It is simply this: Are we the residents, parents and concerned citizens of any school district being intellectually honest in understanding and interpreting student achievement data and rigorously assessing whether it tells us something “good”? After all, testing and accountability are not just things that happen to the “under-performing.” They matter in our back yard too. It is, and should be, personal.

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