Friday, July 24, 2009

What I Learned while Teaching Secondary Science (Part 5): Standards and NCLB

This is a continuation of my Top Ten List of Things I Learned while Teaching Secondary Science:

#6)“The history and importance of state standards and standardized testing”

With the idea in mind of adapting teaching styles to the various learning modalities found in a classroom, and noting the “Big 3” of student needs-- English fluency, reasoning ability, and intrinsic motivation-- that ought to be a focus for educators, I'd like to turn now to some thoughts on the California state standards and standardized testing, and why I'm supportive of both.


In the late 1990's, the California State Board of Education approved of rigorous statewide academic standards for content and student performance in many different content areas. This act was part of the larger education reform movement that began in 1983, with the publication of “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform,” a document that warned both educators and the American public alike of the growing inadequacies of our educational system. Many were stunned when the report lamented that, whereas “America's position in the world may once have been reasonably secure with only a few exceptionally well-trained men and women... it is no longer.”

One of the recommendations of that staggering report was the following:

We recommend that schools, colleges, and universities adopt more rigorous and measurable standards, and higher expectations, for academic performance and student conduct, and that 4-year colleges and universities raise their requirements for admission. This will help students do their best educationally with challenging materials in an environment that supports learning and authentic accomplishment.

Notwithstanding some of the flowery language of the report (“America can do it”) and its Cold War-influenced messages (“If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war”), it was not until 1998 that the official California K-12 science standards were adopted. These standards represent years of effort on the part of educators at many different levels, and are meant to include the essential skills and knowledge that all students need to be scientifically literate citizens. They are the framework for all public school science instruction in California and essential to the state standards-based tests, such as the California Standards Tests (CSTs), developed afterward to monitor all students' progress toward meeting these achievement goals. I've chosen to mention the science standards because I am most familiar with them, but for now we can continue with a more general explanation of CSTs.

CSTs and other standards-based tests are important tools in discerning which student subgroups are and are not scoring at proficient levels. The state culls data from these tests to determine Academic Performance Index (API) scores, which determine if a school is meeting state goals of performance, either continuing to fund them for meeting API growth goals, or punishing them with state sanctions for failing to meet growth goals. Along with API, the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001 established Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) requirements that similarly take data from tests like the CSTs, along with graduation rates and improvement in API scores, to decide if a school will continue to spend Title I federal funding with nominal restraint, or be put on intervention programs that can require a massive overhaul of the underperforming school or district.

Curiously and maybe parenthetically, NCLB stipulates that by 2014, all schools and districts must have 100% of students performing at the proficient level or above on English and mathematics state tests. Meanwhile, here at present time, many schools have trouble meeting the current AYP goal of ~35% proficiency, particularly within the Limited English Proficient (LEP) subgroup. To put the data in perspective for California:

Results from the 2007 California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) inform us that only 36% of LEP students passed the English-Language Arts section, compared to 83% of English-Only (EO) students. On the Mathematics section, 47% of ELs passed, versus 80% of EO students (data source).

The data is just as troublesome when looking at the entire K-12 student population with other CSTs related to reading and mathematics. In the 2007-2008 school year, only 45.7% of all students Grades 2-12 scored at proficient or advanced on the English-Language Arts CST; only 42.7% scored at proficient or advanced on the Mathematics CST (data source).

And the situation only gets worse, as reaching the goal of 100% proficiency in 2014 requires an additional 12% of all students testing at proficient or higher each year, while the trend over the past couple years is a meager yearly increase of only 2% total students testing at this level.

Getting back to the point, there is a history of the state standards (science as well as other content areas) grounded in educational reform, as is the increase in accountability with tracking progress toward state standards through standardized testing like the CSTs. In 2001, NCLB's driving purpose was to bulk up this accountability in schools and provide tiered consequences for schools unable to meet AYP for 2 consecutive years or more. This measure of accountability forces schools to disaggregate their data into its gender, racial, socioeconomic, and English fluent components, marking the achievement gap between subgroups as the primary problem needing fixing in education today. Although the goal for 100% proficiency in 2014 seems unobtainable given recent data, NCLB's push for closing this gap is an important step toward that goal, and state standards are a needed support in meeting such a goal.

State standards are critical for meeting NCLB's goal of closing the achievement gap between student subgroups. Teachers need to know what they and their students are being held accountable to, and the standards help build a framework toward success, or rather a definition of success that the entire state has agreed to adopt. Floundering achievement levels of students during the 1960s and 1970s (cite) were created in part by low expectations and watered-down curricula in schools. The 1980s saw improvement, particularly in minority student subgroups, but the cause of this improvement is debatable (lots to say about this in another post), and the 1990s were also rather dreary. All of our students need and have always needed higher expectations set forth by schools and teachers, and finally in the late 1990s these expectations were implemented statewide with the development of rigorous content standards, measurable through the use of standardized tests.

State standards and standardized testing go hand-in-hand. As a teacher, I really liked how useful standardized (and multiple-choice) tests are, for a number of reasons. First of all, multiple-choice tests are the quickest type of test to grade, which is a big plus for time-strapped teachers. Next, they are objective measures of student achievement with little to no bias inherent in grading them; all data collected from a multiple-choice test fairly gauges each student on the standards included in the test. In contrast, bias in grading free-response answers runs rampant in teaching, and I can attest to how hard it is to not be biased when I cannot read a student's likely awesome response written with ugly scribbles.

The data collected from a standardized exam is excellent for number crunching and quantitative analysis. How many kids didn’t understand question 3? What was the percent mastery of the first 10 questions? What standard did students do best on? I can put all of these data into an excel spreadsheet and reflect on this data for my review and further teaching. This data can also be made available to students via standards-tracking posters, and although a bit time-consuming (I use stickers to show content mastery of each standard for each student), the kids love the competition in gaining new stickers, and it's been a useful tool in showing students their growth.

Standardized tests can also certainly test critical thinking and analysis. The same kind of open-ended question asked in a free-response question can be made into a multiple-choice test, with 1 good answer and 3 distractors. The kids will most often only get the correct answer if they can reason through the problem. Surely the easy factual questions dominate multiple-choice tests for some teachers, but tests like the CSTs have many good layered questions that absolutely require critical reasoning to answer correctly.

I'm aware of other negatives associated with standardized tests, but all in all I believe the positives more than outweigh the negatives to using such testing to measure progress toward achievement goals, the state standards, and they are necessary for the level of accountability in schools that our students need.


To summarize, state standards and standardized testing have both played in important role in education's past as part of the education reform movement. As we move closer to NCLB's 2014 goal of 100% proficiency, reflecting on the advantages of using both of these educational tools offers insight into how the achievement gap will most efficiently be closed.

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