Where's the Honesty in Testing? This Mom Wants the Truth

Every year, I would get the test results in the mail telling me my daughters “met state standards” on the required exams in Illinois for math, science, reading and writing. I guess I was supposed to feel cheered, but it’s hard to celebrate when your kids clear a bar that is set artificially low. A bar I knew would be much higher if we lived in Massachusetts, or even lower if we lived in Georgia. I don’t want bogus reassurance. I want the truth. I believe my daughters’ struggles shape their character far more definitively than their successes, so that’s why I embrace Illinois’ adoption of Common Core. That’s why I support our new state test, PARCC, that will measure these higher standards and create a common yardstick with other states. I’m a former education reporter and research communicator who has spent a lot of time analyzing test scores at the state and national level. I could access data from one national test, NAEP, with a high bar set for proficiency, and then there was a crazy patchwork of state tests—most of which intentionally set the bar for proficiency so low that parents (and teachers) thought their kids were soaring when they were actually sinking. There’s a new report out today by the reform group Achieve that calls this disingenuous disconnect the Honesty Gap. Achieve’s data shows that the Honesty Gap is not just a concern in Illinois: More than half of states report a difference of 30 percentage points or more between their own proficiency results and those provided by NAEP. In Illinois, the disconnect ranges between 20 to 25 points, depending on the grade and the test.

Can You Handle the Truth?

In fact, the Honesty Gap is not new. It’s something many states acknowledged years ago and it’s something many states, including Illinois, are trying to fix. I just hope parents and educators are ready for the truth, because the truth won’t be easy to face this fall when the test scores are released and our very own Honesty Gap starts to close. Many parents who have come to expect those rosy state test scores are in for a rude awakening. Our proficiency rates are surely going to drop. We’re used to seeing almost two-thirds of our students pass state tests, and now it might drop closer to one-third, if NAEP is any indication. I get the angst. I really do. As a reporter, I spent years in schools watching the rollout of No Child Left Behind, and its effect on how schools were run—standardized tests proliferated, and the curriculum narrowed in inexplicable ways in far too many schools. Nostalgia is natural, but we need to take off our rose-colored glasses. We can’t afford to dim the light on data that revealed glaring disparities in the way this nation was educating poor children, black and brown children, children with disabilities and children still learning English. If there’s a better way to keep the spotlight on those disparities, then I’d like to hear what it is. Until we figure it out, we can’t hide from the truth. Yes, the rollout of new standards and tests has been rocky and rushed in a lot of schools, but no one expected this game-changer to be a cakewalk. And a lot of folks, especially teachers, are understandably wary about how the assessments tied to Common Core will be used in their evaluation ratings. But we can have meaningful dialogue about these issues without poisoning the promise of shared higher standards. Strip away the polemic on both sides of the political spectrum, and what it comes down to is this: Americans— at least two-thirds of them—want clear, consistent guidelines for what students should know and be able to do in math, reading and writing from elementary through high school. Maybe they don’t like the name (Common Core) or trust these newfangled tests (PARCC and Smarter Balanced). But they know we must expect more from our children. As a mom, I know we should not stand still—and we cannot retreat. I don’t want to go back to that time when “meeting standards” was an empty promise that offered no peace of mind that my daughters were really, truly learning.
Tracy Dell’Angela is the Messaging and Programs Director at Education Post.
Tracy Dell’Angela
Tracy Dell’Angela is a writer, education nonprofit executive director and a mom passionate about education improvements. Previously, Tracy was Director of Outreach and Communications for the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) at the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C. She came to IES from the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research, which produces research that ...

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