How Public Ed Maxed Out on its Own Rorschach Test

by Martin Harris

It’s tempting to quote teacher-union boss Albert Shanker on the subject of K-12 quality control –“we’ve got a lemon factory and we’re turning out 80-85% lemons” – or to use the old widget analogy about how private industry wouldn’t have any customers if most of its production had been found by users to be sub-standard, but both pale in comparison to the response from the present-day public-ed establishment as the 15-year window for the 2001 No Child Left Behind requirement for almost-all-students-Proficient-by-2014 closes. The promise (and expectation) back then was that, within the next decade-and-a-half, all the US K-12 systems then typically bringing only about a third of their students to grade-level Proficiency in Math, Reading, and a range of other subjects, would make Annual Yearly Progress towards 100% Proficiency, which would involve bringing student scores on the Federal National Assessment of Educational Progress achievement tests up from averages in the low- to mid-200’s (out of 500) to averages around 300; for example, the Proficiency number for Grade 12 Reading is 302. As the 15-year window began to close, State Ed Departments, while never publicly conceding they wouldn’t make the target, began requesting waivers from the Federal requirement. At last count some 40 States have requested and received waivers; Vermont, uniquely, requested one and then tabled its request. Lemon turn-out (to use the Shanker terminology) will continue. Like the Rorschach Test for psychological evaluation –patients inspect a symmetrical ink-blot and tell the clinician what they see in it– public educators have seen the NCLB structure (some critics recently have been calling it “the blob”) and then searched for, and found, the easy exit from promised rigorous Proficiency requirements (actually, something that almost all students once achieved as a matter of normal public school expectations up through the 1950’s) and demanded that escape-hatch for themselves. You might say they’ve proven themselves more Proficient at maxing the test for Politics than they have been willing to enable their about-to-graduate students to earn an easy-but-expected Proficient-in-Reading with a score of 302, compared to maxing it with a 500. (The test-score number for “Advanced” is only 346, so there’s only another 44 points beyond the once-normal Proficient.)

For public consumption, Vermont’s media and educators have prepared and sold a two-part narrative: one is that, in Reading for example, “Schools do OK in Reading…” as a 7 Aug Rutland Herald headline proclaimed. Ed Commissioner Vilaseca was quoted thus: “over half our schools made AYP this year in Reading…” and the other is that “tests don’t matter”, as Rutland Superintendent Moran was quoted thus: “This is just one measure of student improvement and it’s a single test on a single day.” Neither educator chose to discuss actual NAEP test scores, nor did reporter O’Gorman request them for his news piece. You can find them (Statewide summaries, not local districts, and not the most recent for either) on the Ed Department website, and the numbers reveal the educators’ problem.

For 2011, the average NAEP score in Grade 8 Reading was 274. The percentage of students making Proficient was 38%. The target score for Proficiency in Grade 8 Reading is 281. You might think that the missing seven points could have been achieved in either the last 14 years, or, more practically, in the last 44 years, since the NAEP tests were first given and the achievement deficiencies were first made widely public. But they haven’t been; various long-term analyses show how little NAEP test-score gain, not only in Reading and Math, but in other subjects as well, has been accomplished, not just in Vermont but nation-wide, over the last 44 years.

Assuming Rutland is somewhat typical (its scores on the easier-by-design NECAP tests pretty much match the State averages) these numbers reveal a couple of points: one is that the educators, both State and local, and the print media have colluded to withhold the full story of what’s (not) happening in Vermont K-12 education, choosing not to discuss or show with Federal test scores and Proficiency percentages that a substantial majority (62% of Vermont Grade 8 students, for example) can’t read at grade level, not to discuss why Vermont, like most other States, has been pursuing a waiver from the all-students-Proficient-by-2014 requirement, and choosing not to discuss why, over the last 14 years, meeting a Reading Proficiency goal which was commonly met up until the ‘60’s apparently can’t now be achieved. Your Humble Scribe won’t repeat in those column-inches the previously published and discussed statistics for much larger class sizes and much smaller per-pupil annual budgets which went along with those earlier (and fully expected at the time) standards and achievements.

For the public-educators, this test-maxing may be a short-term but not a long-term success. Like the now-somewhat obsolete Rorschach Test, the NCLB waiver itself may soon be less useful. That’s because, ironically, the newly-adopted Common Core curriculum (45 States are now signed on) has just begun to administer its own achievement tests; it’s already become evident that they’re not much different, in revealing fairly dismal Proficiency percentages, from what the NAEP’s have been revealing for decades. In New York, for example, the Proficient percentage for Grade 8 Language Arts (once called Reading) is 31. Vermont’s 38 isn’t as much better as the vast differences in demographic and poverty stats would suggest. Question: when Vermont’s first Common Core tests are administered, will the State Ed Department and the Rutland Herald publish them? Will waivers to avoid responsibility for poor classroom results be demanded and given, as they have just been for NCLB? Will a different and easier test (think NECAP in VT and TCAP in TN for earlier NAEP end-run purposes) be bought and used? Stay tuned.

One thought on “How Public Ed Maxed Out on its Own Rorschach Test

  1. I believe that teachers have to deal with many social issues in schools that takes away from what they should be doing and that is TEACHING, READING, WRITING MATH HISTORY ETC. this is not only a Vermont issue, but a Nation Wide issue. Very sad, the cost of education in this country is very high to have such terrible results.

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