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Standards and accountability are two of the building blocks for systemic reform -- and helping all kids gain knowledge.

Standards and accountability are two of the building blocks for systemic reform — and helping all kids gain knowledge.

There is a major problem with the latest ranking of proficiency targets and cut scores on state tests between 2009 and 20011 released this week by Education Next: That the study’s authors, the otherwise-astute Paul Peterson and Peter Kaplan, have attempted to link the proficiency targets to the implementation of Common Core reading and math standards. Such rhetorical legerdemain may be pleasing to Common Core opponents, who would grasp at anything to justify their cause. The problem is that Peterson and Kaplan’s attempt to link Common Core to proficiency levels fails to consider that most states have neither implemented the tests that are aligned to the exams (which won’t happen until at least 2015-2016) or have even fully rolled out the standards itself. The fact that the development of Common Core wasn’t even fully completed until 2010, and that the 45 states rolling out the standards didn’t approve them until that very year, also makes it hard for Peterson and Kaplan to link the proficiency targets set by states to Common Core implementation.

wpid9021-wpid-this_is_dropout_nation_logo2.pngWhat Peterson and Kaplan should have done was simply focus on the underlying data, which shows that for most of the past eight years, many states have set proficiency targets and cut scores on state tests that have undermined the goals (and, in some cases, high expectations set by) their old curricula standards. This, in turn, brings up two realities. The first? That many states continue to define proficiency down, condemning our children to done poorly in setting proficiency levels are as much a part of setting the high expectations demanded for ensuring that every child gets a high-quality education. The second: That Common Core’s promise as a key solution in advancing systemic reform is only achievable if its standards and goals are linked to — and reinforced by — common accountability systems. It is time for Common Core supporters and the school reform movement as a whole to embrace — and build upon — the strong accountability measures exemplified by the No Child Left Behind Act’s Adequate Yearly Progress provisions.

The fact that only Massachusetts, Tennessee, and Missouri currently have reading and math proficiency targets and cut scores equal to the levels for student achievement set by the National Assessment of Educational Progress — and thus, truly reflective of how well children are progressing in their learning — is absolutely displeasing. This means that nearly all states are lowering expectations and inflating their proficiency rates; it also means that they are also lying to families and children while letting districts and other school operators off the hook for providing low-quality education. For example, Maryland proclaimed that 88.7 percent of its fourth-graders read at proficient and advanced levels as measured on its state tests, even though 43 percent of fourth-graders in the state scoring at such levels on the 2011 NAEP; it is why the state was given a C- by Peterson and Kaplan in the report.

Even worse is that 25 states have lowered their proficiency targets (thus lowering expectations as well as further inflating levels of student progress and district success) between 2009 and 2011, while a mere nine states set higher proficiency targets. This is a long-term trend. Ten states lowered their proficiency levels between 2007 and 2011. This includes the ever-woeful South Carolina, whose reading and math proficiency targets declined from an A to a D+, according to Education Next‘s analysis; the Palmetto State claimed that 54.9 percent of fourth-graders scored “exemplary” or its version of proficient and advanced levels in 2011, even though NAEP shows that only 36 percent of fourth-graders were performing that well.

Meanwhile the data also points to this reality: The promise of high-quality curricula standards can be undermined by low proficiency targets and cut scores. Take Indiana, for example, where uproar over the move to replace its highly-lauded standards with those of Common Core (along with general opposition from movement conservatives at the vanguard of fighting Common Core) led to the state’s move in April to halt official roll-out of the standards. [Many districts are continuing implementation.] The Hoosier State’s proficiency targets (and cut scores) have consistently been lower than those set for NAEP; Education Next ranked Indiana’s proficiency targets on its ISTEP+ exams a C- minus in 2011, the same as it was in 2003. This setting of low expectations by the state, which has been criticized by reformers in the state such as former Commissioner for Higher Education Stan Jones (now the head of College Complete America), makes a mockery of the otherwise strong efforts by the state to transform education for children.

The fact that even states that were advancing high-quality curricula standards before the adoption of Common Core were still setting low expectations for children (as well as for the districts, school leaders, and teachers charged with their academic care) should be worrisome to the school reform movement in general. Common Core supporters have even more to worry about. Why? Because some states have decided to ditch the tests aligned with the standards being developed by the PARCC and Smarter Balanced state consortia because of the opposition of Common Core foes to overall implementation as well as because of worries that the exams will not be ready by 2015-2016.

One of the underlying reasons why states banded together through PARCC and Smarter Balanced to develop the tests is to effectively move proficiency target-setting from state boards of education, which have been prone to setting low cut scores because of pressure to lower expectations from suburban districts, middle-class white suburban households, and affiliates of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. This lack of transparency about the proficiency targets set, as well as the process by which cut scores are selected, results in children being cheated of high-quality education because schools and districts can look better-performing than they really are. It also means that families don’t have the accurate information they need to be lead decision-makers in education for their kids.

Efforts such as Education Next‘s report and the U.S. Department of Education’s own comparisons of state test proficiency targets to NAEP have helped shed some light on this form of defining proficiency down. But given that current state tests — which were created (and in some cases, revamped) a decade ago in response to the passage of No Child — are aligned to past standards, the comparisons are imperfect at best. This is where the Common Core-aligned exams come in. By providing a battery of tests consistent across all states and providing more data on the level of progress districts were making on student achievement, reform-minded governors and state superintendents would have the transparency needed to advance systemic reform; essentially, they could simply match proficiency targets to the highest ones set by leading states. The tests would also prove to be a boon for families because they would have more-accurate data on how their children are progressing in school. Fulfilling both goals becomes harder to do if states either bail out of PARCC and Smarter Balanced, or worse, simply stick to their old assessments, which are unlikely to be aligned with the standards.

Without a successful roll-out of tests aligned to the standards, states will likely revert back to their slipshod approaches to testing and setting proficiency targets. This in turn, will ensure the promise of Common Core in advancing systemic reform is only partly reaped. After all, as Peterson and Kaplan have shown, testing (along with the revamp of how teachers are recruited and trained, and better use of data) is critical to the success or failure of curricula standards.

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One reason why is because what is measured is what matters; the other is because proficiency targets, like other forms of policymaking, are clear communications of expectations in action. The ability to assess the level of proficiency targets is important to shining light on which states are engaging in much-needed systemic reform efforts, and casting antiseptic sunlight on those that are failing them miserably. This transparency, in turn, can help reformers and their allies in state houses set high proficiency targets, and in turn, leverage an important tool for holding districts and schools accountable for providing all children with comprehensive college-preparatory content, for evaluating how well teachers and school leaders are doing in helping all students in their care succeed, and for providing all children with the high expectations they need to thrive in an increasingly knowledge-based economy. And ultimately, it is easier to assess Common Core’s success (as well as advance the goal of providing children with college-preparatory curricula) when tests are aligned with the standards and the curricula shaped by them.

But the threat of states setting low proficiency targets and cut scores isn’t only problem Common Core supporters face in implementation of the standards. In fact the toughest obstacle lies with the Obama Administration’s effort to eviscerate No Child’s Adequate Yearly Progress provisions and dismantle common accountability that has been inexplicably championed by Common Core supporters.

As Dropout Nation has reported over the past year, the Obama waiver gambit is already allowing 37 states and the District of Columbia to ignore poor and minority kids, rendering them invisible altogether, through such subterfuges as lumping all of subgroups into a so-called super subgroup category that obscures data on the performance of districts and schools in helping each and all kids. The lost data on student achievement will also make it difficult to measure how well districts are implementing Common Core and providing poor and minority kids with college-preparatory curricula. The fact that the common accountability put into place by No Child has been replaced with 39 new accountability systems also means that it is harder to compare data on state, district, and school performance, and thus harder to achieve successful implementation of the standards.

Meanwhile the Obama administration’s decision to allow waiver states to ditch the 100 percent proficiency target (which is really 92 percent or so once all the legal exceptions are in place) with supposedly “ambitious” yet “achievable” goals, has led many states to set Plessy v. Ferguson-like proficiency targets that essentially declare that poor and minority kids are undeserving of high-quality teaching and curricula. In Tennessee, districts will only need only to ensure that two-thirds of all black high school students are proficient in Algebra in the next few years, 15 points lower than that for their white peers. In North Carolina, districts are expected to bring black, Latino, and Native students to proficiency levels of 69.3 percent, 71.7 percent, and 72.2 percent, respectively, by 2015. This particular effort at proficiency down is contradictory to Common Core’s ultimate goal of ending the soft bigotry of low expectations against poor and minority children.

Eviscerating common accountability while implementing common standards is both incoherent as policy and mutually contradictory as practice. It is also morally and intellectually unacceptable. You can’t provide children with the high-quality education they need and deserve in order to stay on the path to lifelong success if curricula standards aren’t backed by strong carrots and sticks that hold districts and school operators accountable. Just as importantly, the pursuit of eviscerating common accountability while championing common standards also ignores the lessons gleaned from the imperfect success of No Child, which placed all states under common accountability.

Its focus on reading, math, and science, along with the law’s aspirational goal that all children were proficient in all subjects, forced states to take seriously the quality of curricula being provided in schools (as well as shined harsh light on the failures of districts in helping all kids learn). At the same time, No Child’s subgroup accountability measures, which forced states to hold districts to responsible for their charge of improving student achievement for poor and minority children, provided policymakers, school leaders, reformers, and families with much-needed data that helped spur conversations about ending the soft bigotry of low expectations (as well as the practices that spawned from this thinking) that all but ensured that far too many kids were not receiving comprehensive college-preparatory curricula. This in turn, led to efforts to gain the college completion data (including college remediation rates, AP participation rates, and comparisons of state proficiency targets to NAEP’s performance markers) that has provided more information on the consequences of low-quality standards and curricula.

This isn’t to say that No Child was an unquestioned success. The fact that No Child never required states to set high test proficiency targets and cut scores (or even forced states to benchmark their tests to NAEP) allowed for states to undercut their overhauls of curricula standards.  But without No Child, there would be no Common Core. And without common accountability, Common Core may just end up being ordinary.

It would be great if the Obama Administration would abandon its No Child waiver gambit and enforce No Child’s accountability provisions as it should have done in the first place. But that’s not going to happen without congressional intervention; given the inability of Senate Democrats and House Republicans to address the reauthorization of No Child in a serious manner, this isn’t going to happen anytime soon. More importantly, No Child’s accountability provisions would still need to be updated and aligned with Common Core. This is where the states, with the implicit support of the Obama Administration (and pressure from reformers), must come in. Through the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, states could come together and develop accountability measures that build upon the best aspects of No Child (as well as expand accountability to include the nation’s university schools of education), and align with Common Core; this could include setting uniform proficiency targets and cut scores that are also benchmarked to those of NAEP in order to ensure that they set high expectations. Congress and the Obama Administration could then incorporate those provisions into a reauthorized version of No Child. Not only would it aid Common Core’s chances for success, it would also allow for federal officials to argue quite rightly that federal education policy reflects goals at the state level.

You can’t have comprehensive common college-preparatory standards without strong common accountability. Common Core allies and school reformers should stand up and push for both, not merely one or the other.