Wednesday, October 23, 2019
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Md. releases grade-3 thru -8 PARCC scores

The Maryland State Board of Education discussed the scores received by students in third through eighth grade on the PARCC tests administered in math and English during the 2014-15 school year, which were released yesterday, the Baltimore Sun reports.

Tall ships (USS Constellation, HnoMS Statsraad Lehmkuhl) in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor (Chris Erwin / Flickr)

Fewer than half of elementary and middle school-aged students passed, and board members appeared to be split over the practicality of continuing to use the exam in coming years, according to a report on Maryland

“It’s very dense. I think that one would have to have a 4 or 5 on the PARCC exam to understand it,” the news service quoted board member Chester E Finn Jr as saying about the report to be sent to parents about their children’s progress. “We should have a place on the parent’s report with a two-box option: ‘Is’ or ‘Is not’ on track for college and career. ‘Is’ or ‘Is not.’ Nothing else.”

Voxitatis has reported, and it has been widely reported elsewhere, that “grade level” means the median performance of real, actual kids. A passing score on the PARCC test signifies that a student is reading or doing math at or above “grade level,” that he or she is meeting or exceeding expectations we as a state have established, based on actual kids in the state, in that grade.

By definition, then, if about half the students in third grade pass the test and half don’t, the test could be said to indicate “grade level” for third graders in the state. We can lower the artificial definition of grade level if we want, in order to allow more than half the students to “pass,” but grade level would still be defined as it always has been—at least before the No Child Left Behind law made us expect that 100 percent of our students would be “at grade level.”

If the test, as the PARCC tests do in this case, have a “passing” rate of less than 50 percent, then they are setting the bar for passing “above” the actual grade level they purport to measure. The state is setting “expectations” at a level higher than the actual grade level, which is defined not by a set of standards like the Common Core, to which the PARCC tests are aligned, but by real kids in Maryland.

Writes education historian Diane Ravitch:

I realize that you are very concerned about the fact that 50% of our students are “below grade level.” I want to make sure you understand that “grade level” means “the median.” It is the midpoint, and it doesn’t have a set meaning. There will always be 50% above grade level, and 50% below grade level. That is the definition of “grade level.”

… The schools and students that really need help are those who live in very poor communities. Kids who live in poverty often don’t have adequate health care, nutrition, decent housing, and economic security. Why don’t we work together to advocate for better living conditions for these children, their families, and their communities. Standardized test scores are a mirror of family income. Some poor kids beat the odds, but there is a tight correlation between test scores and family income.

Although there are many issues with the scores and long-term trend data established on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP test, it shows that kids today aren’t appreciably smarter or dumber in math and English than they ever were. That is, the actual “grade level” hasn’t moved much. All we have done, under NCLB, is move the bar, and mostly we have lowered it in order to report to the federal government that an increasingly higher percentage of our kids were “above” the bar at each grade level. But all that did, in effect, was to narrow the curriculum and cause a reduction of non-tested subjects in our schools.

I sincerely hope tests like PARCC will allow us to get a more accurate picture of where our actual kids are, because they are closer to “grade level” than the old MSAs were, so we can improve schools in effective ways and help all students succeed. Artificially lowering the bar so more than half the kids are above it is dishonest and was done simply to shoehorn compliance with a law that has outlived its usefulness.

Furthermore, simplifying the report to parents by removing any indication of a child’s progress, even an indication as big as a total score level from 1 through 5, would eliminate any use for the report and make it a waste of money and paper for the state to send reports to parents.

Parent reports already don’t provide an indication of their child’s progress, except for reporting an overall score. That won’t tell a parent or teacher that a student is struggling with, say, fractions, place value, three-digit multiplication, or geometry concepts. In order for the reports to be useful at all and to justify the expenditure of sending parents information, the exact opposite of Mr Finn’s suggestion needs to be considered.

Some newspapers are reporting the horse race behind the scores, which is pointless.

Washington County Public Schools lagged behind state results for meeting expectations in all but one category on the tests, for example, reports the Hagerstown Herald-Mail. Montgomery County students, on the contrary, did better than their peers, reports.

There’s actually very little point in comparing one school, one student, one school district, or even one state with any other. No actual student, parent, or teacher cares one iota how well kids are doing in other districts; they care a lot about how their child is doing, and that is what a report like the one Mr Finn calls for would utterly fail to tell them.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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