Friday, March 17, 2006

Government Schools in South Carolina: Still Living Down to Expectation

Today I'm over here at the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Ala., for the Austrian Scholars Conference 2006--I organized tomorrow's session on Sustainable Development (fellow presenters: Michael Shaw of Freedom 21 Santa Cruz and Henry Lamb of the Environmental Conservation Foundation and Sovereignty International). The theme is liberty: free minds, free markets.

But how ready are today's students in government schools for such ideas as these? The answer, in South Carolina at least: not ready at all, since to paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, those who believe they can be both free and ignorant want what never was and never will be. Government schools, of course, don't set about to turn out graduates capable of participating in truly unhampered, free markets--which is why they need to be abandoned for private schools and home education. They seek to turn out properly programmed cannon fodder for the global economy (corporate socialism, which serves the international banking cartel, not the people). The material below comes courtesy of Al Hafer (thanks) of the South Carolina Constitution Party. It documents the deception involved in huge (taxpayer-subsized) educational boondoggles like George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind. The authors need to consider more carefully the likelihood that government schools haven't failed but have succeeded magnificently--if among their goals really was to produce unthinking sheeple who are in no position to compete educationally with students in the rest of the world. Has not the larger Agenda been to bring this country down? Is there no better way than to sabotage utterly its ability to transmit its aggregate knowledge and wisdom to future generations? Perhaps there is only one way likely to be more effective at destroying a civilization, and that is to destroy its finances by debauching its currency. John Maynard Keynes had that figured out as early as 1919. But an unthinking mass is going to have no sense of history, and no means therefore of recognizing that its financial and economic life is being destroyed deliberately. Nor are they going to recognize the falsehoods being fed them regarding the education of their children. They won't know that the statistics are half-baked; they wouldn't see through the Orwellian uses and abuses of the language the educrats use to insulate themselves. They are just going to be left to wonder why "the schools are failing their children."

March 08, 2006

Greetings!

Below you will find a Wall Street Journal article that’s very useful in understanding the student achievement debate.

This piece clearly explains how standardized tests are being purposely misused to consistently deceive taxpayers, lawmakers, and parents about what’s going on in our schools. Around the nation, state education departments are watering down their tests so they can report a large number of their students as “Proficient.” (The federal No Child Left Behind goal is 100% of students Proficient in Math and English by 2014. The SC Education Oversight Committee also set a high benchmark of 90% Proficient by 2010.)

South Carolina’s situation is unique though. Our Department of Education has taken a lot of credit for having one of the most rigorous achievement tests of any state in the country. While that’s a good start, such a test means little if our Superintendent and the Department of Education engage in the very practices the article condemns: lowering standards, misrepresenting goals, and highlighting trends rather than results.


Lowering Standards
While No Child Left Behind requires 100% proficiency by 2014, the individual states are the ones who determine and define yearly achievement objectives. In order to meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), Ms Tenenbaum and the SC Dept. of Education set dreadfully low goals and objectives. If not enough schools are meeting AYP, Ms. Tenenbaum lobbies for even lower standards – as she has done for the past several years. The federal Dept. of Education, in their desire to have No Child Left Behind succeed, is all too happy to approve such waivers. So what were the 2005 State Performance Objectives for South Carolina schools?

* Elementary English Proficiency Goal: 38.2%
* Elementary Math Proficiency Goal: 36.7%
* High School English Proficiency Goal: 33.3%
* High School Math Proficiency Goal: 30.0%

Yes, our Superintendent and the SC Dept. of Education are saying that if only 6 in 10 kids are not proficient, then we are “moving towards” meeting our goals.

Is 60% to 70% below proficient good enough for South Carolina?


Misrepresenting Goals
Superintendent Tenenbaum and other education “officials” consistently highlight their “Adequate Yearly Progress” results – standards like the ones above that she annually lobbies to have lowered to bargain-basement rates.

Those standards may be good enough for Ms. Tenenbaum and the bureaucrats, but not for our children. We cannot continue to have seven out of 10 children fail to achieve proficiency and accept that result as good enough. Remember, the stated EOC goal is 90% Proficient by 2010. We are nowhere near that goal, yet nobody talks about it.


Highlighting Trends Rather Than Results
If you start from a low enough baseline, trends are great because you have nowhere to go but up. Ms. Tenenbaum and the Dept. of Education continue to brag about having the greatest SAT improvement in the country, yet South Carolina still ranks last in the nation.

They also cherry-pick results in order to “honestly” report upward trends in the NAEP/PACT achievement tests. While more children might be achieving “Basic” results, if “Proficient” is what we are striving for, that’s what should be reported. Here are the 2005 PACT results in plain English:

* 4th Grade English: 36.4% Proficient 63.6% Not Proficient
* 4th Grade Math: 40.6% Proficient 59.4% Not Proficient
* 8th Grade English: 29.7% Proficient 71.3% Not Proficient
* 8th Grade Math: 23.2% Proficient 76.8% Not Proficient

Sobering statistics, indeed. But at least we know where we really stand.

The WSJ authors are right to say “any serious effort at education reform hinges on our setting world-class standards, then candidly tracking performance in relation to those standards. Even when gains are slender and results disappointing, we need the plain truth.”

As reported in Education Week’s February 27th edition, even Harvard University’s Civil Rights Project concurs that negotiations have weakened accountability, saying, “Education Department officials have made compromises with states on NCLB implementation because of growing political opposition to the law and increases in the number of schools and districts identified as needing improvement. As a result, the report concludes, states are no longer subject to the same standards, which was the original intent of the 4-year old law.”

By distorting the test results, Ms. Tenenbaum and her staff are failing to educate children, neglecting their duty to parents, wasting taxpayers' money, and possibly even breaking the law.

Don't taxpayers and citizens deserve better? Don't parents deserve a chance to choose something better for their children?

Wall Street Journal Online - 2/27/06

Basic Instincts - By CHESTER E. FINN JR. and DIANE RAVITCH

U.S. students lag behind their peers in other modern nations -- and the gap widens dramatically as their grade levels rise. Our high school pupils (and graduates) are miles from where they need to be to assure them and our country a secure future in the highly competitive global economy. Hence, any serious effort at education reform hinges on our setting world-class standards, then candidly tracking performance in relation to those standards. Even when gains are slender and results disappointing, we need the plain truth. Which is why recent attempts by federal and state governments to sugarcoat the performance of students is so alarming.

Our most rigorous standards are those of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a federally funded testing program that began in 1969. At a time when many states, responding to the accountability prods of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, are embracing low performance norms for their students -- and pumping out misleading information about how many youngsters are "proficient" and how many schools are making "adequate yearly progress" -- NAEP functions as an indispensable external benchmark. It unblinkingly reported that only 29% of eighth grade public school pupils were "proficient" in math and reading in 2005. It also showed starkly that the results reported by many states are far too rosy. Observe (in the adjacent chart) the contrasts between what states claimed and what NAEP found.

Not surprisingly, NAEP's role as honest auditor makes state officials squirm. Since NCLB expects each state to set its own academic norms and choose its own tests, the temptation to dumb them down is irresistible; NAEP is the main antidote. Congress knew that in 2001 when, as part of No Child Left Behind, it required all states to take part in NAEP reading and math tests in grades four and eight. (Previously, state participation was voluntary.) Since 1988, NAEP's standards and policies have been set by the independent, bipartisan National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB). In 1990, that body promulgated three achievement levels for reporting NAEP results. These it labeled "basic," "proficient" and "advanced."

"Basic" denoted "partial mastery of knowledge and skills." "Advanced" signified "superior performance beyond grade-level mastery." "Proficient," though, was the key. NAGB termed it "the central level," representing "solid academic performance for each grade tested" and "a consensus that students reaching this level have demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter and are well prepared for the next level of schooling." NAGB intended that "proficient" would represent the skills that every student ought to possess -- even if many were not there yet. On NAEP tests since 1990, this level of performance has usually been reached by about three kids in 10. Everyone knows that's unsatisfactory. But it's also reality, an accurate gauge of the gap between U.S. pupils' prowess and what they need to match world standards.

From the outset, some educators protested that NAGB's "proficient" was too ambitious, but the board stuck to its guns. For the past 15 years, both NAGB and the Department of Education, which manages NAEP, have resisted pressure from politicians and educators to back away from, or dumb down, the "proficient" standard. With NCLB, however, that's begun to change. More voices are demanding that NAEP focus attention on the much-lower "basic" standard. Explains a spokesman for the Tennessee Department of Education: "NAEP's basic is comparable to our proficient." Federal officials should push back, insisting on NAGB's "proficient" as the gold standard. They should continue to highlight -- and deplore -- any gaps between it and state test results. But the White House and Education Department now crave proof that NCLB is succeeding and seek to accommodate state pleas for "flexibility" and pacify governors threatening to withdraw from NCLB.

Hence they, too, are subtly substituting "basic" for "proficient" when they report NAEP results -- and downplaying standards altogether in favor of simple up-and-down trend lines. In releasing the 2005 scores, the Education Department for the first time published comparison tables showing state-specific progress only in relation to "basic." And even NAGB members now highlight "basic" rather than "proficient." In October, chairman Darvin M. Winick, a long-time Texas associate of Education Secretary Margaret Spellings and President Bush, spoke only of gains at the basic level. His "reporting and dissemination" committee acknowledged that "We're trying to draw attention to basic as an achievement level with some value."

Last month, when releasing 2005 NAEP results for 11 big cities, Mr. Winick's statement focused entirely on trend lines, not standards. (He and his colleagues also suggested that students should be compared with others of the same race rather than in relation to standards.) Staffers guiding journalists and other statistical amateurs through these complex data cited "studies" asserting that NAEP's "basic" is closer to states' "proficient" norms -- which is certainly true but should be interpreted as proof that NAEP must maintain its high standards, not succumb to states' lesser aspirations.

Is No Child Left Behind corrupting NAEP? It's too soon to be sure. But it's clear that, for those in the Bush administration and on Capitol Hill whose own reputations hinge on the perceived success of NCLB, NAEP results now carry consequences, just as they do for states.

Just how demanding is "proficient" anyway? Here's how NAGB defined it for fourth grade math: "Fourth graders performing at the proficient level should be able to use whole numbers to estimate, compute, and determine whether results are reasonable. They should have a conceptual understanding of fractions and decimals; be able to solve real-world problems in all NAEP content areas; and use four-function calculators, rulers and geometric shapes appropriately." Is this too much to expect? Hardly. America's great education problem is that for years we settled for "basic skills" rather than true proficiency. The Bush administration does a disservice to the nation if it tells educators and state officials that "basic" is acceptable. You can be sure that our competitors aren't doing any such thing.

Mr. Finn served on the NAGB from 1988 to 1996, including two years as chairman, and Ms. Ravitch served on it from 1998 to 2004. Both are senior fellows at Stanford's Hoover Institution.

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