Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Great MEAP Disconnect

There's not a lot of comparison or benchmarking data to be found on Michigan schools. Data beyond the MEAP, that is. The MEAP is the only game in town. And despite the complaints about the MEAP lodged by the education community, I suspect they'd work pretty hard to keep the MEAP if there was any talk of switching to a nationally-normed test.

We saw this when there was talk of switching from the high-school MEAP to the Michigan Merit Exam (MME), which is based on the ACT college entrance exam.

Fortunately those who are data-driven won out over those who are, well, less driven.

Switching was the right thing to do. The recently released results help paint a much better picture of just how much work we have ahead of us.

And now comes Liam Julian of the Fordham Foundation with some strong ammunition showing that a similar move in elementary school would be appropriate too.

Detroit News: Michigan's tests leave children behind (10/10/07)

Here is a link to Fordham's great report, "The Proficiency Illusion"

I saw tangible evidence of this MEAP disconnect at my last Rochester board meeting and asked again for a nationally-normed test in Elementary. During a discussion on setting academic goals (don't get too excited... this conversation's been ongoing for a year and a half), several on the board (a majority, in fact) indicated they were content maintaining the district's "95th percentile" MEAP achievements in several subjects.

That percentile ranking means that Rochester students score better than 95% of the districts in Michigan. Certainly admirable.

But in sixth grade, when students take their first national test, they land in the low 70th percentile range for reading/language, and 84th for math. What does this tell us, when these same sixth graders are still in the 96th/97th percentile range on the MEAP?

What this means is that Rochester is in the top echelon of Michigan schools, but that doesn't mean much on a national basis.

In short, there is a great disconnect between the MEAP results, and the results seen on nationally-normed tests.

My suggestion to look at a national test in elementary was met with, "Our teachers are pretty busy. Let's give them a few more years."

Sorry, but I'm not satisfied with 95th percentile on the homegrown Michigan MEAP, unless someone can convince me that our students are only going to compete against Michigan kids throughout their lives.

==> Mike.

Here is the whole article in case the link doesn't work:

Michigan's tests leave children behind

Low passing scores create 'proficiency' illusion that sets up students for failure

Liam Julian

Susie Smith is a Michigan fourth-grader. Her parents get word that she has passed the state test, the Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP). She's "proficient" in reading and math. They understandably take this as good news; their daughter must be "on grade level" and on track to do well in later grades.

What Susie's parents don't know is Michigan's state test is far from rigorous. The Wolverine State sets its "proficiency passing score"-- the score a student must attain to pass the test -- among the lowest in the land.

If Susie lived in, say, Massachusetts or South Carolina, she would have missed the proficiency cut-off by a mile. This is the proficiency illusion.

No Child allows illusion

At the heart of the No Child Left Behind Act is the call for all American school children to become "proficient" in reading and mathematics by 2014. Yet No Child allows each state to craft its own definition of proficiency, and craft the tests that will measure it.

Until now, Michiganians had to believe their state's idea of proficiency was rigorous -- they had to trust that their state officials were going to hold all Michigan students to high standards. Unfortunately, that trust may have been misplaced.

Researchers compared the test scores of Michigan students on the state test, the MEAP, with their scores on another national assessment (Measures of Academic Progress). Then they compared MEAP's proficiency cutoff scores with those of 25 other states and determined that MEAP's is one of the lowest. In grade 4 math, only two states of the 26 evaluated have less rigorous requirements.

What's more, Michigan is setting its students up for failure. The score eighth-graders must reach to be considered "proficient" is far harder than the score third-graders need to achieve. That is, Michigan's tests are not well-calibrated across grades.

So Susie may be doing fine (at least on the state test) as a fourth-grader. If she makes normal progress during the next four years, though, she'll be "below proficient" as an eighth-grader.

No middle school problem?

Michigan has reported higher proficiency rates for its younger students. Generally, as students get older, their test scores decline -- leading many people to assume that the state has a middle-school problem. This new research suggests that, perhaps, the tests got a lot harder in the later grades.

We've known for years that there's a problem with many states' academic standards -- the aspirational statements of what students at various grade levels should know and be able to do in particular subjects. That problem turns out to be just the opening chapter of an alarming tale.

Because academic standards aren't the most important element. What drives behavior, determines results and shapes how performance is reported and understood is the passing level on state tests. Most people define educational success by how many kids pass or fail the state test.

Unfortunately, those tests vary so much from state to state that it's tough for parents to accurately gauge whether their children are learning and their public schools are doing their jobs.

The place to start fixing this mess by working toward the creation of national standards and tests that would allow Susie's parents to see how well she's doing relative to children her age in other states. That way, officials in Lansing wouldn't be able to construct such easy assessments for themselves, which artificially raise student scores and take the pressure off the state's schools.

Plus, education standards -- and the tests that measure them -- should be tethered to real-world expectations. What do we want our high school graduates to know; what do they need to know to perform in the economy?

Then everything else should be "backward mapped" so standards and tests in the different grades proceed cumulatively from kindergarten to graduation. It becomes possible to know whether a child is, or is not, on course to meet the 12th-grade expectations.

Satisfactory progress means staying on that trajectory from year to year. If Susie is behind, she has extra learning to do, and extra efforts should be made to see that she gets the help she needs.

As it stands, Michigan parents know only one thing for sure: Largely because of their state officials' shenanigans, they have little idea how well their students are actually doing in school.

Liam Julian is associate writer and editor at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education research group in Washington, D.C., and a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.


Tom Hanson said...

I found the most interesting aspect of this discussion the comments of Michael Petrelli, the VP for policy at Fordham, that even though the math tests are harder, scores are improving more in math than in reading.

Tom Hanson

Anonymous said...

There is a short, critical reaction to "The Proficiency Illusion" on the web at

Angela Maiers said...

Mike,thanks for this link. The illusion of proficiency has been the topic of many of my conversations lately. We are comparing apples to oranges, and still we have little idea of how well our students are actually doing or more importantly how they will do when they leave our classrooms. I am thrilled to have this to share. Thank You!