States Are Getting More Honest With Parents About Crummy Test Scores

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Blake Neff Reporter
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America’s state governments are becoming more honest with parents about the rather dismal performance of U.S. students on standardized tests, according to a new analysis released Thursday.

For years, education reformers have denounced the pervasive “honesty gap” in American education. The term refers to the gap in academic proficiency as measured on state standardized tests versus that measured on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a federal test administered every three years and used to track national educational progress.

The gap largely existed because states administered very easy standardized tests (or were extremely generous in grading), producing high proficiency rates, while the tougher NAEP test reflected the (generally low) proficiency of American schoolchildren.

For example, Georgia, which had some of the country’s easiest standardized tests, more than 80 percent of students tested as proficient in math and more than 90 percent did so in reading, even thought he state’s NAEP proficiency rates were stuck down in the 30s.

Last year, the honest gap for most states was vast, but this year the gap narrowed tremendously, according to an analysis conducted by Achieve, an education reform group. Achieve took each state’s proficiency in fourth grade reading and eighth grade math, as measured by 2015 state tests, and compared it with the state’s proficiency as measured by NAEP.

By Achieve’s reckoning, 16 states reduced or eliminated their honesty gaps in one or both subjects, joining three states (Utah, Massachusetts, and New York) that already had a minimal gap. Nine other states made substantial improvements. Only four states (Iowa, Texas, Virginia, and Oklahoma) show huge honesty gaps that are just as large as ever, with stated “proficiency” rates far ahead of NAEP.

Many states saw tremendous swings. In Georgia,for instance, the honesty gap on 4th grade reading dropped from a staggering 60 percentage points to just 3.

Karen Nussle of the Collaborative for Student Success (CSS), an education group that collaborated with Achieve for the analysis, touted the narrowing honesty gap as a major sign of progress.

“If you don’t know how your kids are doing, you can’t really improve student outcomes,” Nussle said during a press conference announcing the results.

The gap’s abrupt contraction in so many states wasn’t a fluke. Dozens of states have been rolling out new standardized tests as part of the implementation of new Common Core standards. Achieve and CSS both support Common Core, so they were quick to make the connection. Of the four states that continue to show a big honesty gap, two of them (Texas and Virginia) are among the handful that never adopted Common Core, while a third (Oklahoma) adopted it but then totally dumped it last year.

But reducing the honesty gap isn’t necessarily a fun process, Nussle said.

“The news in some places hasn’t been easy.” Generally, reducing the honesty gap means dramatically reducing the students’ stated proficiency rates. Although this merely reflects the implementation of tougher tests, it has caused consternation from many who see “declining” test scores. As a result, keeping the honesty gap narrowed may require states to hold the line against an ongoing standardized testing backlash.

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