In New York, 80 percent of 8th graders met the state’s standards in math this year, up from 59 percent two years ago. But the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results released yesterday paint a different picture. Only 34 percent of the state’s 8th graders are considered proficient, a modest increase from 2007 levels. NAEP scores for the Empire State’s 4th graders actually declined, while the percent passing the state’s own test went up. This renewed charges that New York is making itself look good by lowering standards. Diane Ravitch puts it plainly: ”The fabulous ‘gains’ reported last spring, we now know, were based on dumbed-down tests and dubious scoring of the tests in Albany,” she writes in today’s New York Post.
On the one hand, there is nothing new here, and New York is not alone in this boat. Disconnects between the results for NAEP and state tests have been well known and much discussed for years. The open question is whether state tests have now been sufficiently discredited in the minds of voters to make them a political liability. The even larger question is whether the failure of test-driven accountability to move the needle will feed voter resentment, turning testing into a legitimate campaign issue in state and local races this November and beyond.
“There’s a palpable backlash against testing across much of the great American middle class,” Fordham’s Checker Finn recently observed. ”We need to face the fact that testing, particularly high-stakes uses of test results for students and teachers alike, are deeply unpopular outside policymaker circles and could well lose rather than gain political traction in coming years.”
The first test case may come in New York City, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg is up for a third term and campaigning on his education record. The New York Times points out this morning how the NAEP results are ”sharply contradicting the results of state-administered tests that showed record gains.” NAEP results for the city itself will not be available for several weeks, but Bloomberg’s opponent, Democrat Bill Thompson, is attempting to make political hay nonetheless. A spokesperson quoted in the New York Times today calls the Bloomberg administration the “Madoff of the American education system” and a “national disgrace.” Bloomberg has a commanding lead in the polls, but his opponent is clearly trying to turn the Mayor’s record on education, a perceived strength, into a liability. Will it play? A Marist poll last Spring showed New York voters approved of the Mayor’s handling of the schools by a 51-to-41 percent margin. It bears watching to what degree, if any, the testing issue moves those numbers.
No Child Left Behind, it has been widely observed, is a “tainted brand.” But is “accountability” still a winner at the polls? What NAEP seems to be telling us is that we’ve had a whole lot of test-driven accountability (and a whole lot of education spending) without a whole lot of results. That said, it’s not an easy issue for voters to wrap their heads around. I suspect it will be easier and more efficacious to get voters cranky about their kids education being reduced to a joyless grind. “Prep and test schooling” does not roll as trippingly off the tongue as “tax and spend liberal” but it probably resonates more with voters than trying to explain cut scores.