Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Misapplication of State Standards

An educational study by the right-wing Fordham Foundation is getting front-page coverage in the Journal-Sentinel this morning.

The study says that Wisconsin standards are too broadly written.

Yep, that's about it. Evidently that's a charge worthy of above-the-fold coverage in the biggest daily in the state.

Fordham tries to say that standards = expectations, which is way off the reality of what happens inside the classroom. Teachers do not simply stop teaching when students have "mastered" the standards devised for their particular grade level, nor should they.

At the most standards should be guideposts used to frame what takes place inside the classroom. And in this sense, broadness is a desirable quality for state standards.

The question really comes down to who we want controlling what goes on inside the classroom. Should that control be localized within the community or centralized at the state/national level?

It's my feeling that students, teachers, parents, and local communities should have the most influence on what takes place inside the classroom each day.

The state and the feds are there to ensure everyone has equal access to an education and that discrimination is not taking place -- whether in the structure of the school or the content of the curriculum -- but that accountability should not stretch into dictating teaching and learning on a daily basis.

Unfortunately the standards movement has flipped that accountability on its head over the past fifty years (although the real push has come in the last thirty years) to mean that students and teachers are somehow accountable to the state, rather than just the reverse. And the manner in which this accountability exists is standardized tests, which find their basis in strictly written state standards.

This, in effect, strips the classroom of local control. And it also has a negative effect on academic freedom, which I write more about here.

And in case my theoretical argument about educational structure doesn't convince you that the Fordham Foundation's study should be taken with a huge grain of salt, then perhaps a look at how Wisconsin matches up with other states in terms of actual performance will do the trick.

In response to the Fordham study, the DPI argues that Wisconsin consistently ranks as one of the top states in the country on college entrance exams. The Fordham study authors retort that a better assessment of student performance is really the National Assessment of Educational Progress reports that come out on an annual basis.

It really amazed me that the Fordham authors pointed to the NAEP reports as evidence to back up their study. Here's why.

Out of the fifty states plus the District of Columbia, there were 9 that received a grade of B- or higher in the Fordham study.

California = A
Indiana = A
Massachusetts = A
New York = B+
Virginia = B+
Georgia = B+
Arizona = B-
Alabama = B-
South Carolina = B-

Wisconsin was given a D- in the Fordham study.

Yet, when we take a look at the NAEP reports (here, here, and here) on student performance for 2005, Wisconsin ranks higher than all of the nine states listed above except Massachusetts (Wisconsin is tied with Virginia for second place, and, just as a note, NY doesn't participate in the NAEP analyses).

So while the Fordham study alleges Wisconsin has low expectations because of its broadly written standards, the NAEP reports show the Badger State has far better student performance than the states Fordham found to have high expectations.

Something's not right there -- and by something I mean the Fordham study.

The broader charge made in the JS article that Wisconsin needs to do more to close the gap between high income and low income student performance, along with the performance gap between white students and students of color, holds water.

But that is true for states across the country, and when you break down the numbers in that way it starts to get into issues that are beyond just educational policy in scope -- the issues of financial and racial disparities cut to the heart of nearly all of our economic and social policies.

In terms of overall student and school performance, however, Wisconsin is doing quite well, regardless of how Chester Finn and others at the Fordham Foundation read our state standards.

UPDATE: Xoff uncovers how inverting the rankings on student performance and calling it a study is par for the course when it comes to the Fordham Foundation.


Blogger Jay Bullock said...

Thanks, Seth, for taking the time to do what I wasn't able to this morning. Nicely put.

August 29, 2006  

Post a Comment

<< Home