Since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in 2001, the federal government has encouraged improvement in reading and math curriculums by holding states accountable for their public schools’ performance. Since the federal government began holding states answerable for their progress there has been an outcry of debate from the states arguing that their tests are unfair. Critics claim the tests are not geared towards individual students of every state and that there should be minimal federal control over state education.
Based on dismal gaps between state and federal testing results, one thing remains clear: some states’ schools continue to fail in their fundamental mandate to teach children to read, write and solve basic math problems. The real question is — are these concerns rooted in solid principle or are the states crying foul because they are afraid of the accountability testing holds?
In 1996, the North Carolina Legislature passed a bill entitled the ABCs of Education. It was believed that the bill would change education within the state by essentially giving individual schools more control. Since the schools would be able to operate more freely from binding regulations from Raleigh, a series of tests were created that held the schools accountable for their own progress.
This unique notion of achievement-testing broke new ground, casting tradition to the wind. North Carolina responded by dropping well-regarded, long-used national tests for tests of their own making. The new tests allowed North Carolina greater individuality in testing, but raised significant questions about standards and comparability with the rigorously developed tests being replaced.
State tests really get worthy of note when questions like these are considered: Is grade level harder to achieve in Virginia than in North Carolina? How does my child’s end- of -grade performance compare with that of other children in the nation?
Unfortunately, these questions can’t be answered. When standards are derived from the typical child of a state rather than the typical child of the nation, comparisons with the nation as a whole or with states individually are not possible. Parents and effectual legislators are simply left in the dark with respect to these important questions. The far-reaching comparisons demonstrating that a state has maintained its competitive edge are lost with state-designed tests .
Critics believe states like North Carolina are making things easier for themselves in this process. By opting for their own tests , North Carolina does not have to worry about embarrassing national rankings or poor showings against neighboring states. The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) now has more control over image when there is no one to be compared with.
The public’s perception of student performance is particularly important when parents in growing numbers are seeking options outside the traditional public school setting.
After North Carolina changed from national testing to rely more heavily on their own state tests, the results were very notable. According to NCDPI, “78 percent of the state’s eighth-graders scored at or above grade level on North Carolina’s test , as did 77 percent of its fifth-graders. Each year since implementation of the new test , striking progress was shown.”
This startling increase in achievement must have occurred because of one of three things: better teaching, better learning or smart testing. Advocates for accountability within state education argued it was smart testing — replacing the tougher standards set by the typical child of the “nation” with more achievable standards set by the typical child of the “state.” This possibility cannot be discounted; especially when the subpart of state testing that hardly gets discussed was considered. The subpart was a second set of data North Carolina maintained on a different test — the nationally standardized Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS) . This test was given annually to a representative sample of North Carolina’s fifth- and eighth-graders as a means of monitoring the consistency of the state test with national standards.
Not surprising to skeptics, “only 46 percent of eighth-graders tested with the ITBS scored at or above grade level and only 44 percent of fifth-graders,” according to a 1999 Durham Herald Sun article. Those scores were far below the respective state test percentages of 78 and 77. What was the reaction of the state school board to these dismal results? According to a Charlotte Observer article on June 8, 2001, “the state school board voted to eliminate one national exam from the students’ testing calendar … the Iowa Test of Basic Skills.”
When asked why the test was no longer given to the students, the board simply stated that it was too expensive and to appease “cries from schools to shrink the testing schedules.” Up until the most recent push to use federal testing as a way to monitor the progress or failure of North Carolina schools, the state relied heavily on their own tests to examine achievement.
After the Iowa Test of Basic Skills was eliminated from the testing curriculum, North Carolina and other states needed only to replace its self-designed test with one meeting the criterion of national standardization.
Parents should not have to worry about the quality of the test measuring their children’s achievement, nor should they have to wonder how their children’s performance compares with other states. Concerns of parents and the interests of children are more important than the protection of misleading images, which are the founding principles of initiating the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test as well as establishing Average Yearly Progress (AYP) standards, through No Child Left Behind (NCLB).
On January 8, 2002, President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001 into law — legislation to extend and revise the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). It extensively amended and reauthorized most federal elementary and secondary education aid programs. There were several major agenda items of NCLB, but the one that affected state education most significantly was, “states are required to implement standards-based assessments in reading and mathematics for pupils in each of grades 3-8 by the end of 2005-2006 school year, and at three grade levels in science by the end of 2007-2008 school year.” Since the states are now required to assess achievement within their schools, the federal government needed a way to monitor this improvement.
The way in which the federal government is able to observe the success or failure of the state’s progress is through the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests in the 4 th and 8 th grade. This test is offered every second year in reading and mathematics. In conjunction with NAEP the states must annually apply Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) standards, incorporating a goal of all pupils reaching a proficient or higher level of achievement by the end of the 2013-2014 school-year, to each public school, local education agency (LEA) and the state overall.
A key concept embodied in the accountability provisions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is that of adequate yearly progress. In order to be eligible for grants under ESEA, states must implement standards of AYP that are applicable to all public schools and local education agencies in the state, and are based primarily on the scores of pupils on state assessments. Schools or LEAs that fail to meet AYP standards for two or more consecutive years face a variety of consequences and, ultimately, corrective actions.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, one of the repercussions would be to allow any child within the poor-performing school to transfer to another school within the same district; allowing funding to leave the non-AYP conforming school. Thus, in establishing accountability measures from the federal-level down to each individual school, the federal tests are serving as deterrents against the lowered expectations that have become accepted by the state.
There are two significant distinctions between AYP under NCLB and North Carolina’s school accountability systems. First, AYP is not only based on overall proficiency percentages, but also on the performance of low-income students, racial and ethnic minorities, students with limited English proficiency and students with disabilities. If a school does not make AYP for one of these subgroups, it does not make AYP.
Second, under NCLB, all schools in a state are held to the same standards. It is no longer acceptable to say that schools educating low-income students and students of color are doing all right if they are not being taught to the same high standards as other schools in the state.
It is clearly inherent that the purpose of the NAEP test is to corroborate trends in pupil achievement, as measured by state-selected assessments by comparing them with trends in NAEP results. Unfortunately, the state assessments vary widely and to the states’ advantage the states define "proficiency" however they like. So if you’re a governor or education commissioner, and you want your states’ schools to look good, you have a strong incentive to relax your definition of "proficiency" in reading and math and make your own state tests easier.
The Fordham Foundation, in Washington D.C., analyzed data from state tests as well as the national assessment and looked at states’ progress over the past two years, with the intention of bringing to light whether education officials and state legislators were manipulating the word “proficient” for their own advantage. The result? Nineteen states (of the 29 with available and comparable data) reported their eighth grade students made progress on state reading exams. But only three states showed any gains on NAEP, and even then, only at the "basic" level. (Eighth grade NAEP reading results were disappointing almost everywhere, and the national average fell by a point.) Not surprising, North Carolina was included in Fordham’s analysis.
Just recently, the Hendersonville Times-News reported on the vast discrepancy between how well North Carolina is reporting student test results while national tests are showing an entirely different picture. “The performance gap was often enormous. In North Carolina, 88% of eighth-graders were proficient or better in reading on the state test. On the federal test, which the President and Congress use to chart the nation’s progress, 27% were.”
Upon closer examination of how well North Carolina students were performing on the NAEP tests, it was apparent the discrepancy between state and federal testing applied to all curriculums that are tested. When comparing students’ mathematics performance on the most recent states’ assessments and the NAEP: students were 82% proficient while the national test reported 32%, 72% were at the “basic” level.
With the largest percentage of North Carolina general fund budget allocated to education, taxpayers and parents alike are expecting better results than what the state is delivering. Is the reluctance from the state to conform to national testing their way of holding themselves unaccountable for poor results?
Regrettably, as with the late 1990s, North Carolina is continuing to see a growing discrepancy between state and federal testing results. Although, North Carolina and the rest of the country are starting to see the effects of federal intervention in the way of minority progress. The 2005 NAEP scores for African-Americans, Hispanics and poor children were slightly higher than in 2003, thereby narrowing the nation’s longstanding "achievement gaps."
Among fourth grade students the average scores of black youngsters bumped up two points in reading and four in math (on a 500 point scale). Hispanic students gained three points in reading and four in math, while low-income children rose two points in reading and three in math. All those gains are "statistically significant" and are good news for our democracy and society and future economy.
The accountability measures set out by No Child Left Behind are a good beginning to holding low-performing schools answerable, but more needs to be done. For too long society has blamed children and their families when test scores are poor, of course parents and children have to meet their educational responsibilities; however, schools must be held accountable for teaching students well. National testing incorporated with state testing will help assist in this goal. By comparing the testing results of both tests the state will be held responsible for ensuring their students are learning at the same level as their national peers.
All schools within North Carolina have to make sure that all students are taught to high standards, and states and school districts need to own up to their responsibility to provide the support and assistance schools need to improve teaching and learning. As concerned parents and citizens of North Carolina we cannot allow our state’s education department to win the battle against the federal standards of accountability; our students must participate in federal testing along with state testing to ensure we can compete with students from across the nation. Standards set up an educational destination, but how students get to that destination is equally important.