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28th September
2007

First Published in The New York Sun, September 28, 2007

By Andrew Wolf

There wasn’t much to celebrate when the National Assessment of Educational Progress test results disclosed earlier this week.

The news wasn’t particularly good nationally, with scores that were largely flat as compared with the results two years ago, deflating some of the president’s arguments as America reconsiders the No Child Left Behind law.

Nor was there much positive news here in the Empire State.

There is one state that can look upon the results released this week with a great deal of pride and satisfaction, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. NAEP measures the scores in both reading and mathematics for the fourth and eighth grades.

These scores are released on a state-by-state basis, so it is clear to see how each state is doing, not just against itself over time, but in comparison to the other states and the District of Columbia.

The results are astounding. In all four categories, Massachusetts tops the list of all states, a feat never achieved by any other. For New York, things are not so rosy. In fourth grade reading New York ranks 15 and in mathematics 16. But by the eighth grade, New York students slip significantly. The Empire State ranks 23 in reading and 33 in math.

Expressed in terms of percentage of students reaching proficiency, 58% of Massachusetts fourth graders made the grade in math as opposed to 43% in New York, and 49% reached proficiency in reading, as opposed to just 36% here.

The gap really widens among eighth graders. While 51% made the grade in math in Massachusetts, only 30% did so in New York. In reading, 43% met the proficiency standard in the Bay State, while just 32% did so here.

The grass is greener across the river in New Jersey, which finished second behind Massachusetts in both fourth grade categories, third in eighth grade reading, and fifth in eighth grade math.

Although the Garden State did better than New York, it was still far behind Massachusetts even in the categories in which it finished second.

There is a hefty six-point gap between the Bay State and runner-up New Jersey in both fourth grade tests. In the eighth grade math exam, the gap between Massachusetts and second-place Minnesota is even wider, eight points.

So is there some kind of “Massachusetts Miracle” to explain these impressive results? No, suggests Abigail Thernstrom, a former member of the Massachusetts Board of Education and co-author of “No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning.” Just hard work and honesty in testing.

In an e-mail from Ms. Thernstrom she said, “Massachusetts NAEP scores are no miracle. They reflect the policies of a board of education that has been dedicated to a rigorous curriculum, tough assessments, and transparent results. The first scores on the state’s exams were shockingly low, but the board stuck to its standards, insisting that students could meet them and that teachers themselves had to work harder and smarter. The result: the Commonwealth is first in the nation on the NAEP tests.”

Massachusetts demands that its high school graduates pass an exit exam, a requirement that enrages the powerful and growing anti-testing movement. But this sets a high bar and a clear goal.

Along the way, Massachusetts, like every state under the No Child Left Behind law, tests its children in grades three through eight. But unlike many other states, the Bay State is unafraid to align their tests with the tough standards set by NAEP.

Real reform begins with the truth, and in Massachusetts, that strategy pays dividends as this week’s NAEP results demonstrate.

After the last NAEP cycle, Paul Peterson and Frederick Hess, writing in the scholarly journal, Education Next, analyzed state scores, comparing them with their performance on the NAEP.

Some state results were closely aligned with the federal standard set by NAEP. Others were wildly divergent, not surprisingly in the direction of inflating their own scores to make it appear that the children are doing better than they actually are.

Massachusetts was one of just five states that Messrs. Peterson and Hess assigned a grade of “A,” recognizing close alignment. New York was given a Gentlemen’s “C,” falling well back among the states.

What this means is that tens of thousands of New York children and their parents are being told that they possess adequate reading and math skills when they don’t.

It means that the State Education Department can paint themselves in a better light, as can scores of local school districts including the one run by Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein.

This is troubling news for the children who will come of age in an era when it won’t be enough simply to perform as well as their peers in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, but as well as children in places like India, China, and Singapore.

© 2007 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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