Letter details opposition to federal proposal defining student success on tests

July 20, 2016

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A University of Southern California professor has collected dozens of academics’ signatures on a letter to U.S. Secretary of Education John King criticizing how the federal government proposes to measure student scores on standardized tests. California’s top state education officials agree with him and may express the same point of view in a letter they’re drafting.

Morgan Polikoff says that that the proposed regulations would continue the same flawed methodology used under the federal No Child Left Behind law. An associate professor at USC’s Rossier School of Education, he suggests an alternative approach consistent with the direction the California State Board of Education is taking.

At issue is how to measure achievement in standardized tests in math and English language arts under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, the successor law to NCLB that Congress passed in December.

The proposed standard would be the number of students who score proficient in math and English language arts. Under NCLB, schools were required to gradually approach the target of 100 percent proficiency, which nearly all school schools failed to achieve, leading former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to grant most states waivers from the law’s penalties.

ESSA would not impose a hard-and-fast improvement target; states would be required to intervene in the 5 percent of the lowest-performing schools. But Polikoff and the others who signed the letter argue using the percentage of students who score proficient each year remains problematic. They say it creates incentives for schools to focus primarily on students who near proficiency rather than all students in a school and to devote less attention and resources to students who are way below proficient or who could advance to well above that level. The proficiency target also penalizes schools serving large numbers of low-performing students, since they’re not given credit for significant improvements even if they fall short of proficiency, Polikoff argues.

Credit: USC Rossier School of Education

Morgan Polikoff

Polikoff suggests using the average student score per grade in a school, along with average scores for racial, ethnic and socioeconomic subgroups of students as the measure of performance. That way, all students’ scores would be included, not just those who score proficient.

The state board voted in May to combine both a school’s and district’s annual scores and its growth in scores over several years as the basis for a new indicator of academic achievement. The state wants to move away from a single point designating minimum proficiency as the sole standard, David Sapp, deputy policy director of the state board, said this week.

Under the Smarter Balanced assessments that students in California and 14 other states administered this year, students will receive a score ranging from 2,000 to 3,000. A student’s score falls within one of four achievement levels: standard not met, standard nearly met, standard met (which the federal government considers the equivalent of proficiency), and standard exceeded.

Last fall, the state Department of Education released the first-year Smarter Balanced test results by percentage of students in each achievement level for every school and district. Parents received a report with their child’s individual score on the scale. The Department of Education is waiting for the results of this year’s testing so that it can do a first-year report on growth in scores.

Polikoff said that an alternative to using students’ average scores would be to report results by achievement levels.

Sapp said that State Board of Education President Michael Kirst and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson plan to submit a letter to King on the proposed regulations later this month, and that it may take the same view Polikoff expressed.

More than 40 researchers and others in the education field have signed Polikoff’s letter. They include Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the Learning Policy Institute and an emeritus education professor at Stanford University, and Heather Hough, the executive director of a research partnership between the California nonprofit PACE and the six California districts, known as CORE, which have developed their own school improvement index under a federal waiver from NCLB.

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