Recently my local newspaper reported the shocking fact that in a Tucson middle school, labeled as failing, half the students were “reading below grade level.” That would also mean that half are reading above grade level, a fact the article did not report.
“Grade level” is the term assigned to the score on a norm referenced test that the average pupil achieves. The test is “normed” by administering it to a sample of children in the range of grades it is intended to test. Grade level for each grade is the mean score of all pupils in that grade who took the test. By design, half the children will be above that mean and half will be below. Garrison Keillor has made the joke for years that in his mythical Lake Woebegone “all the children are above average”.
It’s bad enough that news reporters don’t understand the term “grade level.” But in the past few days two of our nation’s highest educational officials publicly misused the term “grade level.”
In a letter to the Denver Post, US Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said the following:
“Unrealistic.” “Not achievable.” These were words once used to label the academic prospects of disadvantaged and minority children. Now, according to a recent survey conducted by Sen. Ken Salazar, they’re being used to describe the goals of the No Child Left Behind act.
It’s time to bust this myth. No Child Left Behind calls on students to read and do math at grade level or better by 2014. It holds schools accountable for steady progress each year until they do. As a mom, I don’t think that’s too much to ask. I believe most parents, whose views were severely under represented in the survey, would agree. They want their children to be taught to grade level now.
And her Deputy Secretary of Education Raymond Simon made a similar misuse of “grade level” in an interview with the Washington Post.
Simon said in an interview that students learning English must be tested on grade-level material to determine whether they are making progress. He asked Virginia state Superintendent Billy K. Cannaday Jr. to ensure that local school districts comply.
“No Child Left Behind says all children will be able to read and do math at grade level,” Simon said. “The whole point of No Child Left Behind is to find out what they know and don’t know and target resources. . . . We want the law to be followed.”
NCLB requires states to use criterion referenced tests. Such a test is supposed to be based on what those tested should know or be able to do in the area tested. Arbitrary scores are given labels by those constructing the test to what they guess would be what those at different levels would achieve.
In the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) they used the terms Basic, Proficient and Outstanding. They set the scores so that they could differentiate those who were simply adequate (basic) from those who were much more accomplished (proficient) and those few who truly excelled.(Outstanding) Both the terms and the scores are arbitrary.
The framers of the NCLB law picked up the term “proficient” and said that kids, schools and schools districts would be judged by the percent of those reaching the proficient score. By 2014 all students of all kinds in all schools must be “proficient” or the schools are failing.
Spellings says “ No Child Left Behind calls on students to read and do math at grade level or better by 2014. It holds schools accountable for steady progress each year until they do. “ Either she is showing basic ignorance of what she is talking about or she is deliberately intending to confuse the issue. If the law required grade level achievement for all students that would certainly be “not achievable” since it would require them to all be above average- a logical impossibility. But what the law really requires is that they must all achieve a score arbitrarily assigned to those who are far better than just adequate. That is certainly both unrealistic and not achievable. And many states have projected that by holding to that requirement virtually all their schools would be failing by 2014.
Simon adds to the confusion by saying the law requires “that students learning English must be tested on grade-level material.” This implies that the same “material” is appropriate for all students in a given grade regardless how well they control English or any other trait on which they vary. He is interpreting NCLB to mean that English language learners must be tested in English to show they “will be able to read and do math at grade level.” Again the law requires them to be “proficient” and says nothing about “grade level”. Ironically a student could be truly proficient in a home language and still be failing according to Simon’s interpretation of NCLB.
I’m inclined to believe that our government officials are not ignorant so I must conclude that they are deliberately misusing the term grade level to confuse the public.
Veteran educator Gary Stager, Ph.D. is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, publisher at Constructing Modern Knowledge Press, and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. He led professional development in the world’s first 1:1 laptop schools thirty years ago and designed one of the oldest online graduate school programs. Gary is also the curator of The Seymour Papert archives at DailyPapert.com. Learn more about Gary here.