On October 22, 2015, education reformers from around the nation converged on Denver, Colorado, for the Foundation for Excellence in Education’s 8th annual Education Summit. Strategy Session VII was focused on “The Proficiency Gap: Why It Matters for Your State.” This session was particularly timely for Florida because, less than a week later, its Board of Education members would be meeting to discuss determining the proficiency levels (or “cut scores”) for the new, 2015 Florida Standards Assessment (FSA). (You can watch Session VII here)
The moderator of the session was Dr. Christy Hovanetz, Senior Policy Fellow of Accountability, Foundation for Excellence in Education. She introduced why she felt it was the right time to have the conversation about proficiency levels (because, having spent so much money on new standards, new tests, new curriculum and professional development, “it would all be for naught” if we didn’t raise the standards). She claimed the current “proficiency gap” (the difference between proficiency levels on state tests and proficiency level on “the Nation’s Report Card” or NAEP assessment) was a result of states not being honest with their students. She suggested that, over the last decade, states had been lowering the proficiency bar, lowering the cut scores required to achieve proficiency on their state tests, in order to “achieve” the Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) required by No Child Left Behind, which had required “all students be proficient by 2014”. The proficiency gap, she claimed, was really an “honesty gap”, a result of states, essentially, cheating the system, and it needed to be corrected.
Is the proficiency gap a result of manipulation of cut scores on states tests, as Dr. Hovanetz (and the rest of the Session VII panel) suggested? In Florida, at least, it appears not.
No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was signed into law in 2001. What was Florida’s “proficiency gap” in the early years of NCLB? If the panel’s suggestion that states deliberately lowered proficiency levels to achieve AYP is correct, than today’s proficiency gap should be greater than that of a decade ago. Historical data, however, shows this is just not true. The 4th grade “gaps” are essentially identical and while the gap for 8th grade reading is slightly larger (23 vs 18), the gap for 8th grade math is significantly smaller (20 vs 30).
|2003 FCAT % level 3+||2003 NAEP % above proficient||2003 proficiency gap||2013 FCAT% level 3+||2013 NAEP % above proficient||2013 proficiency gap|
2003 NAEP results from http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/states/
2013 proficiency gaps from whyproficiencymatters.com/florida
If cheating or dishonesty doesn’t explain the gap, what might?
- NCLB required all states measure all students for grade level proficiency in Math and Reading. State tests were designed to determine if students were performing at grade level. The NAEP assessment, on the other hand, considers “proficiency” to be “solid academic performance for each grade assessed”. The gap might exist solely because NAEP never defined proficiency as “grade level proficiency” but rather something much more advanced.
- Florida’s state assessment is a high stakes test where, sadly, entire school years focus on achieving high scores, to avoid retention and remediation, graduate high school, earn teacher bonuses and school grades. The NAEP test is a low (no?) stakes test. It is conceivable that at least part of the “honesty gap” is really an “effort gap” in that our test-weary children will surely “try harder” to score well on a high stakes exam. This alone could explain why more children score proficient on state assessments.
What the “honesty gap” really is a public relations campaign to encourage the raising of the bar to aspirationally high achievement levels. It is not an emergency or a sign of cheating. It is, likely, mostly caused by the fact that during the NCLB era, the goal was grade level performance, which, by definition, means average performance and NAEP always measured proficiency at a higher level. Now, the reformer’s stated goal is to eliminate need for college remediation and make all high school graduates “college and career ready”, a much higher achievement level, and reformers hope that NAEP proficiency levels will be an appropriate measure of that (to date, no one has any proof that current standards will make students more “College or Career Ready” but reformers hope they will).
The truth is, since 2001, NCLB required schools to focus on grade level proficiency and states used these test scores to inform parents as to whether their children were performing at or below grade level. Now, with the focus on “Career and College Readiness,” the state has to decide how to impart that information to parents. Suggesting that states somehow created the “proficiency gap” by manipulating test data and “lowering expectations”, at least in Florida, appears to be inaccurate. Frankly, if Florida did manipulate cut scores to demonstrate false progress, it would have been done with the full knowledge and consent of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, which heavily influences all education policy in Florida.
So, why are reformers, like Dr. Hovanetz, so focused on this “honesty gap”? We believe reformers, by focusing on the contrived “honesty gap”, have created a false narrative that they are using to further their reform agenda, encouraging the raising of the bar on state assessments regardless of the potential impacts on students and schools. The honesty gap rhetoric creates an emergency situation requiring immediate action. In Florida, it appears the Board of Education will spend significantly more time discussing cut score placement for the FSA than they did evaluating whether the assessment was even valid, fair or reliable. Nationally, the honesty gap narrative distracts from the obvious failures of the education reform movement: scores are declining on the ACT and SAT, respected college entrance exams, as well as scores on NAEP, itself. After more than a decade of test-focused education reforms, students are graduating from high school “lacking intellectual curiosity”. Dr. Tommy Bice, Alabama State Superintendent, summed it up during the same proficiency panel discussion: “We have been preparing kids to take a meaningless test rather than to think, solve problems, think analytically or collaborate with peers.”
If reformers truly want to improve public education in America, we suggest they spend more time honestly evaluating the apparent shortcomings of their reform agenda and less time accusing others of dishonesty. We will be further addressing “Why Proficiency Matters” (or doesn’t) in upcoming blogs. Stay tuned…