A Test Everyone Will Fail

The world of education is a world of tests these days. But why should tests be only for students? Here's one for policy makers, politicians and adults in general. Bet you don't pass.
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The world of education is a world of tests these days. But why should tests be only for students? Here's one for policy makers, politicians and adults in general. Bet you don't pass.

The National Assessment Governing Board defined the "proficient" level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress as the level that "all students should reach" (the other levels are "basic" and "advanced;" the proficient and advanced levels are often reported together as "proficient or better"). Given that and given that Sweden was the top-ranked nation among 35 in the most recent international reading study, answer the following questions.

1. If Swedish 4th graders sat for our National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading test, what proportion of them would be labeled "proficient or better?"

2. If Singaporean 8th graders sat for our NAEP science test, what proportion of them would be labeled "proficient or better?"

3. In the Third International Mathematics and Science Study of 1995, where did American fourth graders rank in science among the 26 participating nations?

4. What percent of American fourth graders were labeled as "proficient or better" in the NAEP 1996 science assessment?

5. What indicators of achievement have been rejected by the Government Accounting Office, the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Education and the Center for Research in Evaluation Student Standards and Testing?

6. What are the first words in set-off text that one encounters in the recently released Center for American Progress/Chamber of Commerce report, Leaders and Laggards?


1. 33%

2. 51%

3. Third

4. 29%

5. The National Assessment of Educational Progress achievement levels--basic, proficient, and advanced.

6. "The measures of our educational shortcomings are stark indeed; most fourth- and eighth-graders are not proficient in either reading or mathematics."

By comparing the results of foreign students and American students on tests administered in both nations, and then examining the American students' scores on the U. S. NAEP, it is possible to reliably estimate how well foreign students would perform on the NAEP.

And it turns out that only one third of those high-flying Swedish kids would be considered proficient readers. The actual figure for American 4th graders who did take NAEP was 29%. The great majority of the remaining countries would have fewer proficient students than the United States. Using the NAEP standard, no country comes close to having a majority of proficient readers.

Using the NAEP standard, Singapore is the only nation in the world to have a majority of its students proficient in science, and that by a scant one percent. Only a handful of countries would have a majority of students proficient in mathematics.

All of those august organizations have rejected the NAEP achievement levels because the process is confusing to the people who try to set the levels and because the results are inconsistent--kids can't answer questions they should be able to and can answer questions that they shouldn't be able to. The levels also give what the National Academy of Sciences called "unreasonable" results including the fact that third-ranked America had only 29% of its 4th graders considered proficient or better by NAEP.

Other evidence is easily come by. In 2000, 2.7% of American seniors scored a 3 or better on Advanced Placement Calculus (3 is the score at which colleges begin to grant college credit for the course). Almost 8% of all seniors scored above 600 on the SAT (24% of SAT test takers scored over 600). Yet NAEP said only 1.5% reached the advanced level.

So why does the government continue to report such misleading information? The CAP/Chamber illustrates why--these numbers are useful as scare techniques and bludgeons. If you can batter people into believing that the schools are in awful shape, you can make them anxious about their future and you can control them. In the 1980s the schools-suck-bloc used such numbers to make us fearful that Japan, now emerging from a 15-year-long recession-stagnation was going to take away all of our markets; today India and China play the role of economic ogres.

Recently in the Post, Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote that the constant reference to a "war on terror" "stimulated the emergence of a culture of fear. Fear obscures reason, intensifies emotions and makes it easier for demagogic politicians to mobilize the public on behalf of policies they want to pursue." Happens all the time in education. The most recent phony alarm comes from Eli Broad and Bill Gates, putting up $60 million hoping to "wake up the American public." If the fear mongers can scare you sufficiently (how many times have you heard the phrase "failing schools" in the last five years?), you might permit them to do to your public schools things you would never allow had they not frightened you into submission.

This was originally published in the Washington Post.

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