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NCLB Outrages

Sandy Kress: Scores prove that students are making significant progress

For Gerald Bracey's comment, watch for the October Phi Delta Kappan.

Charles Murray's essay reminds me of the effort of the boxer who never lands a punch but hopes to impress the judges by dazzling dancing and ducking. The problem: He is a sitting duck for the knockout punches. Here they come.

Mr. Murray asserts that the No Child Left Behind Act "has not had a significant impact on overall test scores and has not narrowed the racial and socioeconomic gaps." Further, he claims that the U.S. Department of Education will try to refute that conclusion by using inappropriate data, "pass percentages, not mean scores."

But what if the Department of Education produced data based on the mean scores Mr. Murray prefers? And what if those numbers demonstrated that achievement gaps have closed?

That's exactly what the Institute of Education Sciences within the Education Department has done. On fourth-grade math national scores from 2000 to '05, the white-black gap closed from 30 points to 26 points, the white-Hispanic gap has closed from 26 to 21 points, and the nonpoor-poor gap has closed from 26 to 22 points.

In fourth-grade reading, the gap over the same period for white-black has closed from 34 points to 29 points; for white-Hispanic, from 35 to 26 points; and for nonpoor-poor, from 34 points to 27 points.

All these gap-closing statistics are statistically significant. Clearly there's much more progress to achieve, but, contrary to Mr. Murray's assertions, the gains since 2000 have been of historic proportions.

Mr. Murray next wanders off in a deep swamp, arguing it's better to measure students relative to a group than against standards. Here he criticizes Texas and other states, suggesting that gains in student scores are meaningless.

Let's look closely at what he says and what has happened in Texas. In a standards-based assessment, if black and white students improve equally, the percentage of blacks achieving proficiency will, over time, increase more than the percentage of whites. Mr. Murray is correct to say that this is "mathematically inevitable."

But is it meaningless? Is it meaningless that more black students who were not proficient are proficient now? Is it meaningless that more minority students are learning fundamental reading and math skills than they were before?

In Texas, only 25 percent of black 11th graders in 2003 performed acceptably to the teachers' panel standards on the TAKS math test. In 2006, 60 percent of black students jumped the same bar. Sure, I'd like black students passing at the rate of white students, 87 percent. Further, I'd like Texas' graduation test to be geared more to college and workplace readiness. But is the jump from 25 percent to 60 percent passing for blacks on a test that has been significantly toughened meaningless? No way!

Mr. Murray wants us to believe that whatever gains have been achieved are due to "relentless drilling." There is no doubt that "teaching to the test" to the extreme is done by teachers and condoned by principals in a small number of schools where shortcuts are substituted for real teaching and learning. But in the vast majority of classrooms, teachers teach to the standards. Their students are doing better on the tests because they have learned more of a standards-based curriculum.

The Manhattan Institute recently examined and refuted Mr. Murray's charge. If the accusation that high-stakes testing leads only to drilling and not real learning is correct, then the results of high-stakes tests should differ dramatically from the results of other measures of student achievement where no stakes are attached. The Manhattan Institute looked at results from several states on high-stakes and no-stakes tests. It found that the different tests produced remarkably similar results. In Florida, for example, the scores correlated at an astounding 0.96 out of a possible 1.00. Other studies have shown conclusively that accountability systems have caused significant improvement in student achievement.

The facts are the punch that knocks out Mr. Murray. And here is what the facts prove: Accountability works, progress has been made, and all students can learn when held to higher standards.

Sandy Kress is an attorney in Austin. As a chief education adviser to President Bush, Mr. Kress was an architect of the No Child Left Behind Act.

— Sandy Kress
Dallas Morning News


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