Education Takes a Baby Step

Education Takes a Baby Step

A decade of standards-based school reforms have raised some test scores that were abysmally low, but produced little else.

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the source: “A Decade of Effort” by Lynn Olson, “A Second Front” by Ronald A. Wolk, and “National Standards” by Diane Ravitch, in Education Week’s Quality Counts 2006, Jan. 5, 2006.

The states’ efforts since the early 1990s to hold public schools to explicit standards of academic achievement seem to have had a fairly positive impact. The improvement in students’ test scores in mathematics and reading is “heartening,” though certainly far from sufficient, says Lynn Olson, executive editor of the 10th edition of an annual report card issued by Education Week, a leading trade publication of the education industry.

Between 1992 and 2005, scores in fourth-grade math increased by almost 19 points on a 500-point scale used by the federal government, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). That’s the equivalent of nearly two grade levels. The increases were even greater for black (28 points) and Hispanic (24 points) fourth graders. Had white students’ scores not also improved, Olson points out, the black-white achievement gap that existed in 1992 would have shrunk by 80 percent.

Eighth graders made less dramatic but still significant gains in math, increasing their NAEP scores by 11 points nationally.

The record was less encouraging in reading. The national average score inched up just two points in both grades four and eight. Even so, the reading scores for black and Hispanic fourth graders, and for all low-income kids at that grade level, increased an amount nearly triple the national average. That is about two-thirds of a grade level.

Did the states’ embrace of standards-based education help boost the NAEP scores? Such assessments are tricky, but the research arm of the nonprofit Editorial Projects in Education, which is the publisher of Education Week, concludes that it did.

However, Diane Ravitch, a research professor of education at New York University, is critical of the fact that there are no national standards: “The idea that mastery of eighth-grade mathematics means one thing in Arizona and something different in Maine is absurd on its face.” The states use their own standards, not NAEP scores, in assessing achievement, and most claimed that large majorities of their fourth and eighth graders were “proficient” in math and reading in 2005. Scores on the NAEP told a different story.

Ronald A. Wolk, chairman of the board of Editorial Projects in Education and an early supporter of the standards movement, now believes that the movement is “more part of the problem than the solution.” It reinforces “the least desirable features of the traditional school,” including “obsession with testing and test prep, [and] overemphasis on coverage in curriculum and memorization.”

Wolk sees more promise in replacing inadequately performing schools with more innovative institutions, such as charter schools. More than a decade of standards-based reform, he concludes, “has raised some test scores that were abysmally low to start with, but produced little else. Not a promising return for an all-or-nothing bet.”

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