Politics & Policy

Reaching For Improvement

An individual approach to proficiency makes sure no child is left behind.

In less than a decade, by 2013-14, every student in America will be required to reach proficiency in reading and math, according to the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). But those students who need help the most may be left behind nonetheless–owing to the perverse incentives and simplistic growth targets that characterize most states’ approaches to meeting NCLB requirements.

California, whose education practices tend to be followed by other states, has set a target this year of 13.6 percent proficiency in English and 16 percent in mathematics. The targets will increase by approximately 10 percent for the next ten years until the NCLB deadline year of 2013-14. In their attempts to meet such goals, schools nationwide may take an easy path that cheats some students.

With the annual targets coming into view, the incentive is to concentrate resources on average students just below the proficiency bar. If these students climb over it, schools and states will be in compliance. In practice, this means that average suburban students in high-performing schools will get priority for help. On the other hand, students in low-income neighborhoods and low-performing schools, with results nowhere near the proficiency line, are not as likely to be targeted for the help they need.

What they are likely to get are dumbed-down standards that will enable schools to declare these students proficient without any substantive improvement. This is similar to the common practice of social promotion, advancing students to the next grade even if they have not mastered the material taught at their present level. While testing trickery may help schools and states feel good about themselves, it cheats the students. The goal, after all, is true proficiency for all, not the educators’ ability to claim proficiency.

States are also fond of using comparisons with group average test scores, but this approach is wrongheaded. States must focus not on large sets of students, but on the achievement growth of each individual pupil, and do so with a rigorous definition of subject-matter proficiency.

A measurement model detailed in Putting Education to the Test–a new study by the Pacific Research Institute–calculates a rate of expected academic change, or REACH, using an individual student’s test scores to come up with an annual individual improvement target for that student. In other words, given a student’s current location on the ability scale, the REACH model tells teachers, principals, parents, and officials how much that student needs to grow each year in order to be proficient by the time he leaves school.

This would be an invaluable tool for instructors starting the school year with a classroom full of new and unfamiliar students. It enables teachers to channel help to those students most in need, a key goal of NCLB.

Since this model measures and projects how each individual student is progressing toward proficiency, it can be used to evaluate whether a particular education program has helped or hurt student achievement. Class-size reduction, for example, has been highly touted–but it needs to be evaluated on how much it actually helps individual students.

The individual model can also reveal which instructional practices are best able to move students toward subject-matter proficiency, and identify practices that are not helping. In American education there is no shortage of faddish practices, from fuzzy math to “student-centered” instruction, that need to be evaluated not on their claims, but on whether they assist actual students.

Whatever the method, teachers remain the keystone of education. The REACH model can also help principals identify strong teachers, and help weak teachers by providing additional training. Instructors should view it not as a threat but as a boon to professional development and classroom performance.

Poor performance by students, teachers, and educators can only be hidden for so long. As they strive to meet NCLB goals, states need to stop finding excuses and practicing tricks intended merely to show proficiency rather than actually providing it. Fortunately, states are becoming aware of the deficiencies in the way they measure student achievement.

Colorado, for example, is moving toward a REACH-based achievement system. If truly no child is to be left behind, all states should follow suit.

K. Lloyd Billingsley is editorial director of the California-based Pacific Research Institute and author of “No Place to Learn,” a study of the school-facilities crisis.

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