As many of you may know, Wisconsin was granted its waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind law a couple of weeks ago. As part of earning that waiver, the Wisconsin state Department of Instruction had to promise to be eternally more vigilant about student achievement.
There are two very visible differences between the pre-waiver and the post-waiver world in Wisconsin. One is that the state’s test is changing. Wisconsin has signed on to the nearly-national Common Core State Standards, and is part of a consortium of states developing a test aimed toward those standards. This will change in the 2013-14 school year.
The other visible change happens now, and it is, as I suggested above, changing the cut scores.
If you don’t know what that means, the inestimable Alan Borsuk laid it out here; the equally inestimable Erin Richards digests and interprets the DPI memo (pdf) that explains just what a difference the new cut scores mean:
Only 35.8% of Wisconsin’s WKCE test-takers in third through eighth and 10th grade in fall 2011 scored proficient or better in reading, and just 48.1% scored proficient or better in math. Compare that with March, when the state released 2011 WKCE results that showed 78% and 82% of students scored proficient or better in math and reading.
As I said: Devastating. My dad would have killed me if I’d been anything south of proficient. Starting today, a whole giant slice of Wisconsin’s students suddenly are.
The reason is simple: NAEP standards (NAEP is the National Assessment of Educational Progress, colloquially called the nation’s report card) are higher. No, scratch that; NAEP standards are different.
Wisconsin’s old system used four levels of achievement, from low to high: Minimal, Basic, Proficient, and Advanced. NAEP also uses four levels of achievement, from low to high: Below Basic, Basic, Proficient, and Advanced.
Hey! you may be thinking, Those match up nicely! Three of the achievement levels are the same!
Except they’re not. Whereas Wisconsin’s old definitions are here–get them fast before they’re retconned out of existence! Proficient in Wisconsin sensibly used to mean that a student “[d]emonstrates competency in the academic knowledge and skills tested on WKCE for that grade level.” That seems like a C (on that scale of A-F) to me, and that’s always the way Wisconsin has thought of it–students scoring as proficient are those who have not necessarily excelled, but who have learned what they needed to learn.
However, NAEP doesn’t treat “proficient” in the same way. I’ll let Diane Ravitch, who used to sit on the NAEP board and knows what she’s talking about, explain NAEP’s definitions:
Advanced is truly superb performance, which is like getting an A+. [...] Proficient is akin to a solid A. [...] Basic is akin to a B or C level performance. Good but not good enough. [...] And below basic is where we really need to worry.
So NAEP’s proficient is like Wisconsin’s old Advanced, where a student “[d]emonstrates in-depth understanding of academic knowledge and skills tested on WKCE for that grade level.” An A+, if you will.
In other words, the NAEP scores simply don’t align with Wisconsin’s old scores: NAEP’s basic is actually Wisconsin’s proficient.
Now, okay, there is, I dunno, debate about whether Wisconsin’s old standards were too low. The afore-mentioned Alan Borsuk beat this drum pretty regularly when his beat was regular — here’s one example. However, others have plotted Wisconsin against NAEP and found our standards fairly middle-of-the-road — here’s one example, if on the slightly low side of the middle. I am not here to have that debate today.
However, I think it’s ridiculous and simply beyond any kind of belief that a state that consistently ranks in the top or above average for, for example, ACT scores and graduation rates and — we learned this week — college completion has only a third of its students reading at a “proficient” level. To point to our successful, and even our doin’ pretty good, students and say they are not proficient when they by any reasonable definition are is just downright cruel.
And doing so doesn’t add “accountability” so much as it adds stigma.
Part of what’s happening here is that this country is on an insane spiral to define proficiency up. The late and lamented (so very lamented) Gerald Bracey wrote about exactly this:
I have repeatedly observed that the NAEP results do not mesh with those from international comparisons. In the 1995 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS, assessment, American 4th graders finished third among 26 participating nations in science, but the NAEP science results from the same year stated that only 31 percent of them were proficient or better. [...]
Because we have scores for American students on NAEP and TIMSS and scores for students in other countries on TIMSS, it is possible to estimate the performance of other nations if their students took NAEP assessments.
How many of the 45 countries in TIMSS have a majority of their students proficient in reading? Zero, said Phillips. Sweden, the highest scoring nation, would show about one-third of its students proficient while the United States had 31 percent. In science, only two nations would have a majority of their students labeled proficient or better while six countries would cross that threshold in mathematics.
Bracey quotes a study done in 1991 when NAEP first started applying labels: ”[T]hese standards and the results obtained from them should under no circumstances be used as a baseline or benchmark … the procedures used in the exercise should under no circumstances be used as a model.” And yet here we are, applying them to Wisconsin’s students in a giant disservice to their actual achievement.