Cross-posted at Education Week
Gloom settles on the land. California just released the scores from its administration of the Smarter Balanced tests and the news is not good. But then the State Superintendent told everyone they would not be good. The standards, he said, have been raised; so expect the scores to go down. They did.
Remember the olden days? That was when the state commissioner of education decided where to set the cut points on the state tests. Why the commissioner and not the testing experts? Because standard setting was a political process. Sure, it had technical dimensions, and the commissioner would seek the advice of the testing experts, but in the end, it was political judgment, not technical expertise, that was wanted. That’s because standard setting was a matter of striking the right balance. If no one failed the tests, then they were obviously too easy. If too many failed, the parents who had some clout would rise up in fury. There had to be a tail on the curve off to the right that signaled excellence, or the parents trying to get their kids into the best colleges would be upset. But not too big a tail on the right or they would also be upset. How big should the left hand tail be? The right hand tail? The middle? Science couldn’t help with that. That is why the commissioner and not the technical advisory committee set the standards for the tests.
This way of setting standards contained the kernel of our whole grand sorting system. It mirrored what the classroom teacher was expected to do: create a bell curve and fit the grades of the students to the curve. A few failing grades, a few A+s, and then a nice distribution in between. That is what the school did, too, except it did not do it with grades. In elementary school, we sorted out the students as if we were in an aviary–the bluebirds over here and the robins over here. Everyone knew what that meant. In high school, the bluebirds had become the kids headed for college, the robins were the kids headed for the trades, and then, over there, were all the other kids. Everywhere we looked, we could see a bell curve if we looked hard enough. All the way through school, kids took tests that were normed. The point of norming was to enable us to see where each kid fell on the bell curve, so that we could sort them out.
The sorting system corresponded nicely with the structure of the labor market the students were destined to enter. It decided who and how many were destined for the elite professional and managerial jobs, for the jobs requiring less than a four-year college but strong technical skills, for the jobs requiring very little in the way of basic skills and then for the great mass of jobs in the middle. We got that down to a science. When we told ourselves that we were educating everyone up to their potential, what we really meant was that we had filled each of these bins with about the right number of young people.
But something very, very different has to happen now.
Since the 1970s, global employers, whose ranks have mushroomed, have been able to source their labor anywhere in the world, and have, quite naturally, worked hard to find the skills they need at the lowest possible cost. Swiftly advancing automation has gobbled up a great many jobs involving routine tasks. Most are low-skill jobs, like gas station attendant and cashier, but some are high skill jobs. A very large fraction of the jobs requiring no more than an 8th grade level of literacy are disappearing. But guess what? The majority of the young people who leave our high schools, with or without a diploma, have no more than an 8th grade level of literacy. They are not able to read at a level that will enable them to succeed in a four-year college leading to a degree or a two-year community college program leading to an employer-recognized certificate. In today’s world, they are ready for neither college nor work. Our community colleges use textbooks written at a 12th grade level. The incoming community college students are typically reading at the 8th grade level. So their community college instructors have to summarize their texts in PowerPoint presentations so their students can at least get the gist of the text.
Another way of putting what I just said is that we are now filling up the bins on the left hand side of the curve with kids but the demand for those kids and their skills is swiftly drying up. Those kids, millions of them, will have no future, but we go right on filling up those bins as if they did.
There are those who say this is not as great a problem as it seems. The kids who did not score proficient on California’s administration of the Smarter Balanced test will be OK, because the proficient level was set for kids planning to enter a four-year college and not all kids need to go to a four-year college. But data we have from ACT tells us that those data are pretty much the same for kids going to the average four-year college and the average community college. This means that everything I just said about the average community college applies to the average four-year college.
The all-important issue now is how the states use the new tests coming from the two consortia. They could simply report to the public on how many of the test takers fall in each of the levels defined by their score-reporting systems. That would perpetuate the sorting system I described above. High schools would continue to send millions of high school graduates to our community colleges and four-year colleges reading at the 8th grade level in order to take high school again, in college, at great expense, with a very high dropout rate. In that case, the catastrophe continues.
Or we could get a grip and do what the rest of the world does, which is to use the scores on the test to determine whether the student is ready for college and, if the student is not ready for college, not admit that student until the student is ready for college-level work.
Whoa! What did he say? Not let the student go on to college until that student is ready for college? Insist that high school be completed in high school? Restrict entrance to college to people who read at the 12th grade level and who have mastered high school math? Is he crazy?
No. That is just what the top performing countries do. The result is that in many of those countries, their students are two to three years—that’s right: years—ahead of their American counterparts when they leave high school. They do high school in high school, not in college.
The years in which the bell curve will work for us are over. The sorting system won’t work anymore. If the United States wants to remain a world power, the leader of the world’s democracies, and enjoy a high standard of living, then we will have to set a high standard of achievement for our students and make sure they get to it. The whole bell curve will have to be shifted and compressed to the right. The question is no longer how we compare to each other, but how all of us compare to the best, and that is no longer us.
That won’t happen until the states decide that all their students have to be proficient, that less than proficient is a failing grade. That is what it means to have a standards-based system. We’ll see if the United States is ready for that. Watch how the states set the standards. Then watch how they use them.