Wednesday, July 05, 2006

I want my edupolicy debate!

The Miami Herald has an article today highlighting an interesting struggle going on within Education policy between the Federal Government and the States regarding testing standards .

A little background here; NCLB requires that the states test all their students annually to determine their proficiency in math and english and report that back to the Federal Government and to the public. Those test results are then used to calculate the all important Adequate Yearly progress (henceforth AYP). Schools that consistently fail to meet AYP are supposed to eventually receive some kind of sanction. Those sanctions can be pretty drastic, up to and including getting rid of the school in favor of charter or private options.

One of the more credible complaints about NCLB is directed towards the state tests. The states have significant autonomy in determining what constitutes proficient. It varies from state to state. What has become apparent is some states are, predictably, setting absurdly low standards for what constitutes proficient. We know the states are gaming the system because the Federal Government administers it's own tests to students every two years called the National Assessment of Education Progress.(NAEP). To be precise, I am referring to the Main NAEP, not the long term trend. In many states, the number of students that test proficient was significantly lower on the NAEP than on their states tests. In some cases, 40+ percentage points different.

The Department of Education is addressing this issue by evaluating each states testing standards. Those states that are not compliant will be subject to sanctions. Amusingly, one of the those sanctions on the states is a particularly deft act of bureaucratic jujitsu. If the states testing system is determined to be substandard, the Federal Governments Title I administrative money will bypass the state education department and go directly to the districts. As you can guess, control of those funds affords the State DOE's substantial power. Bypassing them is a fairly effective bitchslap.

To be fair, the NAEP itself is not above reproach according to many critics, who question it's accuracy. I do not have the expertise and background to make a evaluation of the testing methodologies. That is an arcane policy argument going in edu policy circles. I have no doubt though that some states are gaming the system, it's alot easier than trying to fix schools, particularly in states where the schools are underfunded and increasing taxes is tantamount to declaring yourself an acolyte of Satan. It's possible, as Florida is arguing, that the discrepancies are ones of methodology, not rigor, and their proficiency scores are valid measures of progress. Personally, I doubt that is the case. The discrepancies are too wide in most cases to be attributable to different methodologies. The more likely conclusion is that the states don't want to be held publicly accountable for low scores, it makes the policy makers and the politicians look bad. (Both parties are culpable here.)

I realize this sounds like the sort of eye glazing policy wonkery, complete with sorcerous arguments about testing methodology, that liberals are infamous for. But dammit, these arguments really matter. And simply running around trying to sprinkle the magic fairy dust of Milton Friedman around with vouchers is not cutting it, Red State. I think vouchers in some form should be on the table as a possible policy alternative, but most of the voucher plans I've seen are scams meant to defund the public system so that little Dick and Jane RedState can go to Jesusfreakery high on the public dime and learn about the flat earth and the angelic precivilization that left the dinosaurs bones to trick us into going to hell. The key in voucher schemes is how they try to exempt them from testing requirements, something they did in the Milwaukee voucher program. (I highly recommend this series on the voucher program in Milwaukee done by the local fishwrap. It's comprehensive and fair and a good primer on the issues, pro and con)

My point is, it's impossible to sort out issues like vouchers until you come to terms with basic issues of assessment. What is a good school system, and how do we know it's good? We certainly don't need worthless screeds like the one David Brooks popped off a few weeks ago about how boys are being oppressed by being forced to read girlie books.

In Florida, the political stakes are high, since Jeb is a possible candidate for President and having 500 schools sanctioned for sucking and supporting a rating system that is possibly invalid doesn't help him. Junior will never allow DOE to do this to Jeb or to Florida. The DOE will find a way to cut Florida slack. They will avoid the real question, are the schools in question any good, and are the NCLB requirements the way to go? That's a good question I wish we talked about more in mainstream political discussion, and less about TranAnnie and her plagerizing hatred for Liberal Democracy.

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