12 August 2005

Another Precinct Heard From

Have you heard of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)? It is referred to as the "nation's report card" and "is the only nationally representative and continuing assessment of what America's students know and can do in various subject areas. Since 1969, assessments have been conducted periodically in reading, mathematics, science, writing, U.S. History, civics, geography, and the arts. It includes students drawn from both public and nonpublic schools and reports results for student achievement at grades 4, 8, and 12."

While this sounds "high stakes," no individual results are ever reported. So, if you happen to have a student or two selected to take the test, neither they nor you will ever know how they did. Their information will become aggregated with everyone else's.

Scores at the 12th grade level have not risen appreciably since the 1970's. Why? This article on Slate.com claims that the reason is simply that kids are lazy. This might account for teens' low standing on global comparisons as well. After all, if the outcome of the test has no impact on your graduation status---and in fact, you'll never know how you scored---then why bother trying very hard? In terms of the NAEP, "in 2002 nearly half of the 17-year-olds tapped to take the national NAEP exam didn't bother to show up. Students who did show up left more essay questions than multiple-choice questions blank, an indication that they weren't going to be bothered to venture an answer if it required effort."

But what about tests that do "count" for students, like the SAT, ACT, WASL (and their kin)? Students are continuing to make gains---even minority students. For example, "when states begin imposing penalties for failure, it makes a difference—sometimes a big one. Look at Texas: In 2004, results counted toward graduation for the first time, and pass rates on both the math and English portions of the test leapt almost 20 points. According to Julie Jary, who oversees student assessment for the state, no substantive alterations were made to the test. What changed was students' motivation: When their diplomas were hanging in the balance, they managed to give more correct answers."

Imagine that. It makes me wonder what will happen with WASL scores this year, as it will be the first time that they count toward graduation. At my school, we have long been holding our collective breath about this. Our hunch is that scores will get a bump up---but I don't think it will be 20 points.

"Between 1994 and 2004 math SAT scores increased 14 points, while verbal scores inched up nine points. At the same time, the diversity of the test takers increased: Last year, 37 percent were minority students, compared with 31 percent a decade earlier, according to statistics compiled by the Center on Education Policy, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C. You would expect that minority influx to have pulled SAT scores down, since minorities post lower marks than college-bound seniors as a whole, with the exception of Asian students on the math section of the exam. But scores went up. "

The article wraps up by stating that high schools still need to do a better job of educating kids. And they're right about that. We have a lot of work to do in that area, but I'm not so sure that NAEP results can be relied upon as a source of data for our changes. I'm also not sure that any changes we make will lead to less "lazy" future performance on tests like this. Education may be changing. But kids? Hey, they're still just kids.

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