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Wary of Proficiency Rates, California Eyes New Reporting Method for Test Scores

Cross-posted from the Curriculum Matters blog

By Catherine Gewertz

It's become so ingrained in schools that it feels like a fixed object: Annual test scores are reported by the proportions of students who score at various levels of achievement, such as basic, proficient, and advanced.

It feels like a fixed object because it is. Fixed in federal law, that is. Here's the pertinent section of the 12-year-old No Child Left Behind law requires that spells it out. It says that states must have performance standards (cut scores) that:

''(II) describe two levels of high achievement (proficient and advanced) that determine how well children are mastering the material in the State academic content standards; and

(III) describe a third level of achievement (basic) to provide complete information about the progress of the lower-achieving children toward mastering the proficient and advanced levels of achievement."

Enshrined in law or not, California views this way of reporting student achievement as arbitrary and harmful. So state education leaders there have begun a long process to design a new way of reporting student achievement, and they're interested in reporting it by scale scores. For lots of good detail on this, read John Fensterwald's story on EdSource.

California, you might recall, is one of a handful of states that does not have a No Child Left Behind waiver from the U.S. Department of Education. That means it must still comply with the requirements of that law. So it will be interesting to watch how the Golden State attempts to walk the line between having to report achievement in categories, and wanting to use scale scores (such as 2000 to 3000, the scale envisioned by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, whose tests California students will be taking this year).

California's a scrappy state and has already demonstrated its willingness to go up against the U.S. Department of Education. Remember when it suspended virtually all of its regular state accountability testing, and drew a sharp scolding from Secretary Arne Duncan?

Education leadership in California is deeply uneasy with the achievement-level style of reporting in part because it places damaging labels on students who fall short of the "proficient" mark, even if they scored only a point or two below those deemed "proficient." It can produce an intense focus on test prep for the "bubble students" just below the cutoff. Additionally, they argue that at the high school level, the scoring levels on the Smarter Balanced tests say more about students' readiness for credit-bearing work in college than they do about their suitability for good jobs, certificate programs or other pathways.

As EdSource reports, and as I have mentioned in an earlier blog post, California played a leading role in creating a set of guiding principles about how to interpret Smarter Balanced test scores. Those principles discourage thinking of Level 3 and higher on the consortium's four-level test as reaching "grade-level" achievement. Other states, too, are rethinking how student achievement should be reported. 

Vermont and New Hampshire are among them. Officials from both states said recently that they are contemplating reporting test results in scale scores as well as achievement levels. California, of course, could report both as well, and wouldn't seem to be risking an accusation of flouting No Child Left Behind.

If it wants to throw achievement-level reporting over the railing, though, that could be another story. Since California tends to play an outsized role in influencing education policy and practice, the way it rethinks its achievement reporting could prove influential far beyond its state lines.

State Board President Michael W. Kirst told me recently that a key aim is providing a more nuanced and meaningful report about student learning.

"We need to divorce accountability from reporting, so we can tell parents a lot more about what students know and can do than just saying, 'You're at Level, 1, 2, or 3 or 4," he said.

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