Paul Peterson and Carlos Xabel Lastra-Anadón of Education Next recently wrote a report about the improvement (or lack thereof, depending) in state standards across the US. They compared students’ achievement levels on the state tests in comparison to how well they did on the National Assessment of Education Progress. For those unfamiliar, the NAEP was created by the Department of Education and is based upon average international standards of achievement among the industrialized countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. Overall, they found that while reading standards have risen some in recent years, math standards have actually dropped. However, just as important as growth are the levels at which standards are currently. The only state to have higher proficiency requirements than the NAEP in either reading or math was Massachusetts and that was only in math. The state with the lowest standards? Tennessee, one of the two winners of round one of RttT, was hands down the worst state in standards. How terrible?
Based on its own tests and standards, the state claimed in 2009 that over 90 percent of its 4th-grade students were proficient in math, whereas NAEP tests revealed that only 28 percent were performing at a proficient level. Results in 4th-grade reading and at the 8th-grade level are much the same. With such divergence, the concept of “standard” has lost all meaning. It’s as if a yardstick can be 36 inches long in most of the world, but 3 inches long in Tennessee.
Despite these low standards, it was at least holding fairly steady with only a 1% drop in its standards between 2003 and 2009, compared to Arizona with a 48.5% drop and South Carolina with an astounding 65.2% drop in its standards in those six years. In the report and in a podcast with Peterson and Chester Finn Jr., the success of Tennessee and Delaware in Race to the Top is questioned, considering that Tennessee was 51st out of all the states and DC and Delaware wasn’t much better at 36th. Peterson complains
In Tennessee, the gap [between proficiency on state tests versus the NAEP] is wider than any other state, so from that, we gave Tennessee an F. If you go by how well Tennessee has done in the past, how can it possibly be a candidate for one of the two top awards?
He and Finn joke about how federal funding is based upon promises and this is a clear example of that. If past performance were the main indicator, then Tennessee would be one of the first eliminated, rather than the biggest winner.
However, we need to think about the function of Race to the Top. What is its ultimate goal? I would assume most would agree that RttT is aiming to be a catalyst for change. Duncan and Obama keep patting themselves on the back for all the reforms states have made in the past year without even receiving a penny in return. The money, therefore, is not for crossing the finish line. That’s the wrong metaphor. What’s the point of giving money to Massachusetts for their past performance if they’re going to do well regardless of the money? As mentioned in a previous post, Massachusetts lost out on RttT points because of not being quick enough to adopt the national standards – as the state with the top standards in the country, they would probably be lowering their standards if they adopted the national consensus ones. Why shouldn’t they get points for strong standards, then? Because the point is to get the low performers up. Peterson and Finn point out that both Delaware and Tennesee agreed to adopt the national standards. As both states currently have low standards, adopting the national ones can only move theirs up. I don’t have a problem with grading states based on moves they’re making – these are not for promises at some point in the future. The states have a proposal that has been accepted and is being funded, the same way non-profits or researchers submit a proposal for a grant and get money based on fulfilling the requirements. How else can you fund immediate innovation?