Stateline Story

Lake Wobegon, U.S.A. -- Where All the Children Are Above Average

  • January 31, 2007
  • By Pauline Vu
Stateline.org highlights significant state policy developments and trends each year in its State of the States report
When her son came home from middle school with a report card showing he'd passed North Carolina's year-end algebra test, Margaret Carnes believed he had the foundation he needed for high school.

Then she met with his teacher, who cautioned her not to be too confident. By the state's yardstick, students had to answer correctly fewer than half the questions to pass. In some grades, they can flub two-thirds of the questions and still be marked "proficient."

It can be a harsh wake-up call for children and parents alike. Students are told they are where they're supposed to be academically, but a rude awakening awaits them in high school. "It compels one to ask the question, Have they been prepared?" said Carnes, now managing director for Charlotte Advocates for Education , a nonprofit group pushing for higher state standards.

It's a problem of long standing in U.S. public education. While international assessments confirm that American students lag behind those in several other countries in science and math, many school districts and states keep telling parents that their children, like those in Lake Wobegon, Garrison Keillor's hometown of fable, are all above average.

More testing under the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act was supposed to help measure whether elementary school children are learning what they need to know. But scores on state-generated tests often contradict results on a national test. North Carolina is one of several states with glaring differences between how well it says its students are doing and the harsher verdict of independent comparisons.

The North Carolina Board of Education finally is getting the message. It has switched to a tougher math exam, and recently raised the passing scores in math for grades 3 to 8. So far it's one of only a handful of states raising their standards.

Welcome to the era of high-stakes testing, where persistently low scores mean principals can get fired and states can take over failing schools. No Child Left Behind requires U.S. schools to make steady progress, so that by 2014 every student is proficient in math and reading. But to ensure cooperation, Congress left it up to each state to measure how well its pupils were doing.

Although the goal was transparency, results have been less than clear. While states report growing percentages of students are proficient, the verdict is considerably worse on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), an exam dubbed "the nation's report card" that is given to a sampling of students in all 50 states.

The discrepancies in some states are alarming. In Alabama, Colorado, Georgia, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee and West Virginia, far more students rated proficient on the homegrown tests in 2005 than on the NAEP exam - about 50 percentage points higher.

When Tennessee's education department reported a dramatic jump in state test scores in 2004-05, the Knoxville News-Sentinel headlined the results, "Schools meet Bush's challenge." But parents belatedly learned there was little cause for celebration. On the federally sponsored exam, only 21 percent of Tennessee eighth-graders were up to par in math and 26 percent in reading, not the 87 percent rated proficient on the state tests.

States' idiosyncratic systems for grading schools can be equally confusing. Last fall, Oregon reported 97 percent of its more than 1,000 public schools were satisfactory or better. Only 30 schools got "low" or "unacceptable" marks. But only 70 percent of Oregon schools met the federal standard for progress.

In Florida, only 918 schools made sufficient annual progress under No Child Left Behind, yet 1,467 schools received an "A" grade and 610 received a "B" under the Florida "A-plus" school accountability system.

"It creates confusion in the minds of parents and policy-makers alike," said Bruce Fuller, a University of California, Berkeley education professor who has studied the discrepancies between state scores and NAEP.

A new proposal from the White House at least could make it easier for the public to compare scores. Preparing for Congress to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act this year, the Bush administration on Jan. 23 proposed - among several changes - to require states to report the proficiency rates for both their state and NAEP tests on the same report card.

Local control of public schools is a hallowed tradition in American education, and there has long been antipathy to the idea of a national test. NAEP has been around since 1969, but it tests only a cross section of students in each state. Participation is mandatory, and its existence serves as a deterrent to states' dumbing down tests to look good and avoid costly penalties.

Some state educators say comparisons are unfair because NAEP is too rigorous and was designed to chart long-term trends, not to measure what states feel students should know.

"Our state assessment is directly designed to our state curriculum, so our teachers are able to pull from the data what they need to help our students," said Jan Lineberger, Tennessee's NAEP coordinator.

Differences between state and federal tests are to be expected, yet some gaps appear as wide as the Grand Canyon. Mississippi reported that at least 79 percent of its fourth-graders were at grade level in math in 2005, yet on the federal test, only 19 percent were proficient or better. 

In comparison, Massachusetts' math test is tougher than NAEP's. The state test rated only 41 percent of fourth-graders as proficient at math, fifth lowest in the country. But Massachusetts students were the country's highest scorers on NAEP, with 49 percent rated proficient. Students are considered proficient on NAEP if they show competency over challenging subject matter, including how to apply it to real-world situations. 

The National Center for Education Statistics , which administers NAEP, is planning to release a study in the spring that compares states' definition of proficiency with that of the federal test. 

If some states inflate scores, it comes at a price. Schools that mask how little their kids are learning behind inflated test scores aren't pushed to provide transfer and tutoring options - the first sanctions under No Child Left Behind. Students also advance through school thinking they have the knowledge needed to go to college and get a decent job, only to find out too late they were never prepared. 

In California, the university system reported last year that 75 percent of high school juniors were not ready for college-level English classes. Nationwide, one-third of students entering college need remedial classes. More than a quarter who enter four-year colleges and almost half of those entering community colleges drop out before their second year.

"There's no doubt that too many kids don't know what they need to know to succeed in life," said Bethany Little, vice president for policy and federal advocacy at the Alliance for Excellent Education , a Washington, D.C.-based research and advocacy group. The Alliance estimates the nation spends $1.4 billion a year on remediation for unprepared students.

As No Child Left Behind comes up for debate and renewal in Congress this year, much of the discussion will focus on the test gaps, and some prominent conservatives are suggesting it's time to embrace national standards or even a national test for all students that would supplant state tests. Every other major industrialized nation employs a standardized curriculum and national tests in its schools.

William J. Bennett and Rod Paige, education secretaries under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, respectively, exhorted fellow Republicans in a commentary in The Washington Post to support national standards. The organization most actively pushing for national standards is the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation , a Washington, D.C.-based conservative think tank.

Tommy Thompson, the Republican former governor of Wisconsin and co-chairman of the No Child Left Behind Commission tasked with proposing changes to the law, said Congress needs to find a way to stiffen states' spines on testing.

"I don't think states have been quite as honest as they should be in regard to their testing and standards," he told reporters outside the commission's September meeting, according to news accounts.

Some states have considered softening standards. Democratic lawmakers in California pushed through a bill last year that would have lowered the state's standards, which they called unrealistically high. But Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) vetoed the measure. "Redefining the level of academic achievement necessary to designate students as 'proficient' does not make the students proficient," he wrote in his veto message .

But the Missouri Board of Education in 2006 lowered the cutoff scores on its grade-level tests to ensure that more students passed.

North Carolina was not alone in moving in the other direction. Georgia raised its passing scores at the same time that it adopted more rigorous standards and new, tougher tests.

In November, Minnesota released results from tougher math and reading tests that debuted in 2006. Statewide, 58 percent of students were scored proficient on the math test - down from 76 percent the previous year.

In West Virginia, Superintendent of Schools Steve Paine was only a week into the job in November 2005 when he got the news that only 26 percent of fourth-graders were proficient on NAEP math and reading tests, and that eighth-graders fared even worse. Paine said he couldn't sleep worrying about the results. On West Virginia's own tests, 70 percent or more of students scored at grade level. 

Paine called for an outside audit of the state's standards and test, and both were found to be lacking. The result: substantially tougher standards and new tests that will debut in 2008.

"I dare say that our standards in little old West Virginia will probably be as rigorous and relevant as you'll find anywhere in the country," Paine told Stateline.org. "If we're going to do this, we're going to do this the right way, set our standards high and make no concessions."

The change in North Carolina's end-of-grade tests is the first such adjustment since the tests began in 1993. "The Board felt that it was time to increase standards in its efforts to better prepare students for the rigors of the 21st-century competitiveness," said Lou Fabrizio, the state's director of accountability.

The state board ordered tougher passing grades applied retroactively to tests administered in 2006. Only 66 percent of fourth-graders passed this time, compared with 92 percent the year before.

That may alarm and frustrate some students and parents, but others, such as Margaret Carnes, say it's ultimately for the best.

It's better to know the truth now, she said, "than to find out … that they graduated from high school without the skills they need to succeed."



The preceding article was excerpted from State of the States 2007, Stateline.org's annual report on significant state policy developments and trends. (The online article was updated to include a Jan. 23 White House proposal to alter the No Child Left Behind Act.)

Tags: Education