When it comes to test results, educators are increasingly playing fast and loose with the facts. What’s the harm with a little grade inflation, some might say, if students feel good about their performance? Plenty. And the costs – both social and economic – are piling up.
The widespread failures of American high schools to back up diplomas with real learning have been well-documented (in my journals and elsewhere). Currently, community colleges in California must remediate as many as 88 percent of students in math and 75 percent in English. An article in the New York Times (9/2/06) reports that only 21 percent of students applying to 4-year institutions are prepared for college-level work in reading, writing, math, and biology, according to scores on the 2006 ACT college entrance exam.
The price tag for the miseducation of American youth is astronomically high. In our state alone, we could save as much as $97 million each year if students left high school better prepared and less in need of community college remediation. This number comes from the Alliance for Excellent Education’s August report, “Paying Double: Inadequate High Schools and Community College Remediation,” (.pdf) providing a detailed account of the economic ramifications of our high school crisis nationally. Add that to another report (referenced in last week’s journal) setting the cost of remedial education to businesses and higher education at $16.6 billion annually, and you’re talking a lot of money.
Unfortunately, our lack of truth-telling isn’t limited just to high schools. In a number of states, and especially in North Carolina, passing state tests means precious little. Nationally, North Carolina has a reputation for laughably low standards, confirmed each year by major discrepancies between proficiency scores on state tests and those on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).
Is the message getting out? Maybe. A Charlotte Observer headline this week confirms that “Passing N.C. tests [is] no proof of readiness.” This week, members of the North Carolina Board of Education are meeting to talk about whether to raise scores needed to attain math proficiency. Howard Lee, Chairman of North Carolina’s Board of Education says of the impending change, “I’m not OK feeling good about something that’s not real.”
This is well and good, but no one can argue this news is new! Back in June, 2004, I expressed concern about the disconnect between the State Board’s verbal and written definitions of proficiency. While the Board says proficiency is more closely aligned with “minimal standards,” their written definitions give families great confidence in student performance.
According to the Department of Public Instruction, nearly 80 percent of the students in our state perform at level III (the level required to pass on to the next grade). According to written evaluations, level III students “demonstrate mastery of the grade level subject matter and skills, and are well prepared for the next grade level.” The sad reality, then, is that many parents don’t know their kids are in trouble academically.
Clearly, we must take action. As parents, taxpayers, and citizens, we must push for rigorous, transparent evaluations of student performance. If we are ever to turn things around, we need to know what we don’t know. Alfred North Whitehead, mathematician, philosopher, and co-author of the seminal work Principia Mathematica, said it this way, “Not ignorance, but ignorance of ignorance is the death of knowledge.” Isn’t it time we learned the truth?
Lindalyn Kakadelis heads the North Carolina Education Alliance.