Testing Our Kids

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In his big education speech on Tuesday, President Obama said this:

Today’s system of fifty different sets of benchmarks for academic success means fourth-grade readers in Mississippi are scoring nearly 70 points lower than students in Wyoming—and getting the same grade.

Bob Somerby wants to know what he’s talking about:

According to Obama, fourth-grade readers in Mississippi “are scoring nearly 70 points lower than students in Wyoming—and getting the same grade.” Does anyone know what that actually means? Mississippi kids are scoring “seventy points lower” on what? (Seventy points can represent a very large or very small difference in achievement, depending on the measure in question.) And what “same grade” are both groups of kids getting? This was a very important speech—and this was a central contention within it. And yet, this statement makes no sense at all. (The spectacularly unhelpful White House “fact sheet” makes no attempt to explain it.)

I’ll take a guess.  Obama was talking about state testing regimes, and a couple of years ago the Department of Education released a study (here) that tried to convert passing scores on the various state tests to more standardized NAEP scores.  In fourth grade reading, they found that the passing score in Wyoming was equivalent to an NAEP score of 228, while in Mississippi it was equivalent to an NAEP score of 161.  That’s a difference of 67 points.

This was a poorly worded passage in Obama’s speech, but my guess is that “getting the same grade” was supposed to mean something like “meeting the minimum state requirement.”  As Bob says, there are some pretty obvious explanations for all this, but still, the difference between the highest and lowest state standards really is an astonishing 70 points or so (very roughly equivalent to seven grade levels).  That’s probably what Obama was getting at.

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