Monday, July 21, 2008
A testing standard that says getting 33 percent of the questions right is a passing grade teaches all the wrong lessons to the kids — and to those who are supposed to be educating them.
Yet New Jersey has been setting the mark as low as that for the tests that are used to judge student proficiency and school performance under the federal No Child Left Behind program.
Fortunately, that is about to change.
Last week, the state Department of Education took a step toward setting the bar higher. We hope the move sends a signal that the focus of educational testing is not about the rank of a school or a district or the state.
The focus must be on finding all the students who need help, not “dumbing down” the tests in order to hide the numbers who are floundering. Mississippi and some other states have been accused of doing that. Who knew New Jersey was in that company?
For students in grades 5 through 8, getting 33 to 46 percent of the questions right has been enough to earn the label “proficient” in math or language arts in New Jersey.
Now students must get 50 to 56 percent right — which is still not much to ask. The state plans to gradually enact higher standards for all grades. Why should any be lower than 50 percent?
The change may cost some schools their bragging rights about student performance, because the overall pass rates are expected to go down. Currently 76 percent of kids statewide pass the sixth-grade language arts examination. That is expected to drop to 54 percent. That will be a shocker.
The standards were approved last week, but will be used to grade tests that were taken in the spring. There will be howls from schools that say the retroactive application is unfair. In fact it is the best way to get an objective comparison of the old and the new.
The state Department of Education must to do a good job of explaining its changes and reinforcing the idea that true learning, not hollow test scores, is the only acceptable goal. If parents are not well prepared, they will be angry and confused as their children slide out of what was assumed to be the educational safety zone, even if the grading system made it a false assumption. Educators will be angry and frustrated, particularly those who have confused keeping up appearances with the obligation to teach children what they need to know.
Could this change put more schools in line for No Child Left Behind sanctions, from mandatory tutoring to a forced reorganization of some schools? That is a possibility, although expectations of harsh sanctions have so far proven more myth than reality.
If the ultimate goal is learning, as it must be, test scores should be used as a tool to help the students by identifying individual strengths and weaknesses and addressing them before those students enter the harsh reality of the world beyond 12th grade.
Schools should fear failing that mission more than they fear test scores or No Child Left Behind.
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