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16th May

First Published in The New York Sun, May 16, 2008

By Andrew Wolf

The National Assessment Governing Board is in town, here for their quarterly meeting, the site of which rotates around the country. It is New York City’s turn to host the board, which represent a glimmer of hope in a largely bleak educational landscape.

NAGB is a federal agency that is truly non-partisan in the political sense. Think of it as a sort of bureau of weights and measures, providing a common measuring stick to measure the academic performance of our children.

It is NAGB that puts together the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the testing program that they like to refer to as the “nation’s report card.” Those of us who write about our schools often refer to the NAEP tests as a “gold standard,” by which we can reliably cut through the smoke and mirrors, routinely presented by self-serving local authorities, in search of the truth, however painful.

This isn’t easy because America, unlike almost every other industrialized nation, has no national curriculum and no mandated national testing requirement. Instead we leave the business of education to 50 states that seem to compete not to reach the top but to give the illusion of success. In this case the sum of the parts is not greater than the whole.

So states and localities have resorted to administering ever easier tests, while pointing to soaring scores as “proof” of the efficacy of their leadership. New York State tells us that 68.6% of our fourth graders are “proficient” in reading, but the NAEP test results show that just 36% meet that standard. It comes down to what the definition of “proficiency” is.

One NAGB member suggested that the appropriate standard is the one you would aspire to for your own children or grandchildren. Educrats often get too used to demanding less of “other people’s children” in their zeal to look better themselves. But what of the children? Is it fair to tell them they are doing so much better than they really are? This is a strategy for failure.

Today, Friday, at 1 p.m., the board will be officially welcomed to the Empire State by the State Education Commissioner, Richard P. Mills. The work of NAGB is not unfamiliar to Mr. Mills, who formerly served as one of its members, but in his current job Mr. Mills has morphed from a standards hawk to timid mouse, a defender of the wide gap between New York State tests and the NAEP results.

The commissioner has become an apologist for the low state standards that have left New York well down in the national rankings as measured by actual performance. When Mr. Mills takes to the podium today, I’m sure he won’t tell the board, as he told the Regents last December, that New York’s standards are more accurate than NAEP or that the stratospherically high scores on the tests administered by the State Education Department are accurate.

If one accepts his premise, the high achieving students in nearby Massachusetts, a state similar to New York, must be aliens from another planet that can boast of a vastly advanced civilization.

Massachusetts has created rigorous tests that closely mirror the NAEP results. As reported the other day by my colleague Elizabeth Green, in the latest study contrasting how closely state tests conform with NAEP, Harvard professor Paul Peterson, the co-author of the analysis, counseled New York to follow the lead of the Bay State, whose remarkable academic growth now put it on top of all states in performance in both math and reading in 4th and 8th grades.

I doubt whether Mr. Mills will stand before the distinguished members of the National Assessment Governing Board and admit, as he did to the Regents last December, that New York schools and students don’t take the NAEP as seriously as they do the state tests. “Teachers and students perceive that stakes are high for performance on the New York tests and students are encouraged to do their best. There are no consequences to a school or a student from NAEP.”

Does the average fourth grader really slack off when he or she sees that the test paper put in front of them is coming from one government entity or another? A test is a test, and children should always be encouraged to do their best. As for the adults running the schools and administering the tests, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that they take the administration of NAEP very seriously indeed.

If the state of New York can do no better than lame excuses and continue to practice this pernicious form of grade inflation, to my mind a form of cheating, it is time for the Regents to seek out new educational leadership in Albany.

© 2008 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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