Want Students to Pass Standardized Tests? Curve Them!

One of the least understood elements of  No Child Left Behind is the nature of the tests students are given to measure proficiency. While many believe the tests are a straightforward comparison of the achievements of students across the nation, the tests are anything but. Instead, they are often nothing more than politicized nonsense which do nothing to improve student achievement.

The recent results of Florida’s testing demonstrate just how flawed the system can be. As the New York Times reports, the state used a writing scale from 1-6 to measure proficiency. To pass, students needed to score a 4 on the test, but with new, tougher standards in place, the percentage of proficient students dropped from 81% to 27% in one year, prompting an unusual response:

The high failure rate was based on measuring proficiency as a score of at least 4. First, the state considered lowering the cutoff to 3.5. That would have resulted in a passage rate of about 50 percent. People would probably still be angry. So on May 15, Florida’s education commissioner, Gerard Robinson, held an emergency conference call with State Education Board members, while 800 school administrators from all over Florida listened in. The board voted to lower the cutoff to 3. Presto! Problem solved. The proficiency rate for fourth graders was now exactly what it had been in the 2010-11 school year, 81 percent.

All those blaring headlines about student achievement and failure we’ve grown accustomed to every year don’t mean anything, because the underlying tests don’t really measure anything. The scoring and content change from year to year; the measurement changes every time it’s measured. Some states challenge their students with difficult tests, while others dumb them down to gin up artificial success.

And this is the system we’re using to punish schools and students for “failures”? No one, least of me, argues that we don’t need higher standards for students in our schools, but relying on tests like these will never generate improvement. At best, they’ll generate headlines for politicians and privatization advocates to exploit.