This school year was supposed to mark the beginning of the comeback. Largely free from pandemic-related disruptions and with coffers flush with Uncle Sam’s Covid cash, states could finally turn their attention toward clawing back what students have lost. But early signs are, at best, mixed about how these efforts are progressing: Almost a quarter-million children across twenty-one states are missing entirely from schools, to say nothing of the half-million children in Los Angeles who missed out on classes last week. Tutoring has not been the answer thus far, and many in positions of power seem to have lost interest in school outcomes and results-based accountability.
To the extent that our education debates still turn on school improvement, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona says he wants states to keep their focus on academic achievement. In a platitude-heavy speech given earlier this year, the nation’s top education official called on policymakers and educators to challenge the current state of affairs:
Today, we raise the bar in education. The same is not good enough anymore. If we do what we’ve done, we’re going to get what we’ve gotten. We’re better than that. Our children deserve better than that. The first area where we must raise the bar is academic excellence. As much as it is about recovery, it’s also about setting higher standards for academic success in reading and mathematics...
To do this, states need valid, reliable, and rigorous assessments. Cardona went on to say that standardized tests should serve as “a flashlight on what works and what needs our attention.”
Tell that to the folks in New York State, who have decided it’s better to hide the evidence. Its education department recently announced a plan to effectively lower the bar required for students to achieve proficiency on state reading and math tests, unironically referring to the diminished threshold as the “new normal.” This in a state where kids lost enormous ground, and where things are probably worse than reported due to the large number of students who did not sit for the state exams.
To reach the baseline required to be considered proficient, a scoring committee that reports to the New York Board of Regents determines the material that students must know, and then sorts it based on the level of difficulty. The committee then uses a combination of technical considerations and expert judgment to decide the minimum scores required for a particular level of achievement. The setting of these “cut scores” happens largely out of the public eye, which is why, in part, this process can be vulnerable to mischief. Indeed, many states have historically misled the public about whether students are actually proficient.
Over the last twenty years, the federal government has been examining the discrepancy between how proficiency is defined on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) as compared to each state’s definition. What they used to find is that most state standards for reading and math map to NAEP’s “basic” achievement level rather than to “proficient.” Over time, however, most states have made progress in being more honest about how they report student performance by raising their cut scores—to the point that some state tests now have standards at NAEP’s “proficient” level. New York is not one of them.
No, in fact, in the Empire State, some have reasoned that state reading and math tests should be re-normed so that students can pass them at lower levels because of their learning loss. It’s a colorable if head-scratching argument, coming at a time when Cardona and others have repeatedly said that getting back to normal is not good enough. Making matters worse, New York is no stranger to exam manipulation. This under-the-hood tinkering is happening in a state with a long anti-testing streak, and within a politically fraught environment that has become increasingly skeptical, even hostile, to standardized tests.
Part of the problem—one that is largely unacknowledged, at least publicly—is that we’re really lousy at “catching kids up” en masse if they’ve fallen significantly behind. Consequently, to solve for low proficiency rates, the path of least resistance is to make exams easier to pass—creating a false impression of success, much as already happens with high school graduation rates. If New York’s lower cut scores lead to more students being deemed proficient, the state can both mask the detrimental hardships wrought by the pandemic while claiming that it effectively deployed its federal relief dollars to raise reading and math scores back up to snuff. What’s more, it makes a mockery of the communication gap between schools and parents if the state tells them their kids are caught up when they’re really not.
This will be a dynamic worth watching: the degree to which states are being honest in how they’re succeeding (or failing) at addressing pandemic-era learning gaps. On the one hand, how states define proficiency matters less in the long run than focusing on how pupil achievement rises relative to where it presently is. But the last thing states should do is to be anything less than forthright with parents and families about how their children are doing. It’s shameful that New York is attempting to blind its citizens to the gaps and shortfalls besetting its students, but if history and experience are dependable guides, more states could soon follow this ugly example.