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Student test scores released this week on the math portion of the “nation’s report card” will make more urgent the rethinking of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. The act is up for reauthorization by Congress later this year, and test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) are certain to be on the table. They show that for the first time in two decades, the math scores of 4th graders across the nation were flat, showing no improvement on how 4th graders performed when last tested in 2007. Eighth-graders, meanwhile, posted only very modest gains.

Darker states have greater discrepancy between state and federal test scores. Black states indicate no data. Source: The Center for Public Education

One thing Congress must figure out is how these scores square with state and local test results. On the most recent state exam, 82 percent of New York City students in grades 3-8 achieved passing scores, up 25 percentage points since 2006. At the same time, 97 percent of elementary and middle schools in New York City earned As or Bs on the district report card this year, compared to 79 percent in 2008 and just 61 percent in 2007.

Such sudden and sizeable gains strain credulity.

How is it that the pictures offered by city and state data on the one hand, and by federal data on the other, can differ so dramatically?

The answer has to do with who writes the tests and what they are intended to show. NAEP scores are watched closely by policymakers because they aren’t susceptible to the same manipulation that state test scores are. While nothing stops states from designing easier tests and lowering cut scores from one year to the next – practices that many experts say New York State has engaged in – NAEP exams, given nationally, are protected from such ploys.

The rosy picture we see at the city and state levels – so rosy, in fact, that New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein declared as recently as September, “There’s nothing wrong with anything”  – is not reflected in federal data such as the NAEP results. Grade inflation is natural in systems where politicians stake their careers on school improvement, as Mayor Bloomberg has done in New York City. The problem with such grade inflation, however, is that it misleads people into seeing progress where none has been made.

In the process of rethinking NCLB, policymakers must ask whether states have been given too much latitude in deciding for themselves what counts as progress. If the answer is yes, we shouldn’t be surprised to discover a great many students, parents and teachers who believe – however wrongly – that students are performing well, poised to graduate from high school ready for college or a career.

The reality is less rosy. In North Carolina, to take but one example, the data on middle school math achievement show that 84 percent of students were considered “proficient” on the state exam in 2005, whereas only 32 percent reached this level on the NAEP exam.  Large discrepancies between state and federal data are the rule, not the exception: a mere six states had single-digit differentials between state and federal proficiency rates in 2005.

That NAEP scores at the high-school level have remained mostly unchanged since the 1970s suggests we need to do things differently. Common state standards – currently under development by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State Schools Officers – are a good start. Experience has taught us that state standards and tests are inadequate to the tough task of raising student achievement. What we need now are not more but better tests, and not more but better standards. If standards and tests are well-designed and well-aligned, and if teaching and curricula are strengthened, there is every reason to believe our children won’t be left behind by their peers in high-achieving nations.

While the U.S. Constitution is silent on education – effectively delegating authority to individual states – the federal government has a long history of goading states into compliance with its preferred policies. The promise, or even the potential, of federal funds has the power to move mountains, something we’ve seen to dramatic effect in recent months as states such as California, Louisiana and Tennessee have changed laws to ensure eligibility for the $4.35 billion “Race to the Top” money.

Student achievement is unlikely to improve in substantive ways absent a concerted effort by Congress and the states.

This commentary was written on October 15, 2009.

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