Home > Uncategorized > “Grade Levels” are an Administrative Convenience…Standardized Test “Grade Levels” are a Statistical Artifact… and BOTH Block Mastery Learning

“Grade Levels” are an Administrative Convenience…Standardized Test “Grade Levels” are a Statistical Artifact… and BOTH Block Mastery Learning

I am bewildered by the fact that most of the general public and most people associated with public education believe that “grade levels” linked to age cohorts are a natural, biological and developmentally appropriate means of grouping children and, because of that fact,”grade levels” linked to age cohorts are a fair, equitable and valid means of categorizing students for the purpose of measuring their performance.

But here’s are two facts: the grouping of students into “grade levels” based on their age cohorts was a practice instituted in the early 1900s for administrative convenience. Once it became THE “standard” means of grouping students, it also became the basis for scoring “standardized tests” that became the basis for creating homogeneous “ability” groups within those grade levels, norm-referenced tests that used scale scores to determine if students were performing “at grade level”.

In the late 1900s it appeared there might be an opportunity to replace norm-referenced standardized tests that sort and select students with criterion referenced tests that help determine if students have mastered the material presented in class or learned outside of the classroom .The technology was emerging that would make the use of such tests feasible, and, had the hoped for conversion to mastery learning taken place it was possible that student directed learning would have replaced test-driven learning.

Since NCLB, the administratively convenient standardized tests have moved to the forefront. Predictably, their results, which would necessarily yield a bell curve, demonstrated a large number of “failing students” and, just as predictably, those “failing students” were housed in schools serving children raised in poverty whose test results correlated strongly with the income of their parents.

Now that these “failing schools” require “take overs” by the State, and given that the State Departments of Education do not have the wherewithal to oversee all of the schools identified as “failing” based on standardized test scores, the “failing schools” are turned over to private contractors who promise to get better results on tests in exchange for a waiver of regulations and relief from the “administrative burdens” imposed by teacher unions.

When Congress repealed NCLB by passing ESSA, the misnamed “Every Student Succeeds Act”, and President Obama signed it into law, there was SOME hope in my part of New England that given the flexibility built into ESSA that they might be able to institute some mastery-learning and/or student-directed learning into their state plans. When the bill passed, I was hopeful of that outcome for Vermont and New Hampshire, the two states I worked in before I retired… but also dreading how other states might use their flexibility to impose things like “value-added” measures and school choice. I was also fearful that those states who rejected the Common Core might feel liberated and impose Creation Science requirements or limit the teaching of climate change

Now… several months later, it is clear my hopes will not be realized in either Vermont or– especially in New Hampshire… and my fears about the direction other states would take were well founded. Worse, as reported in yesterday’s Politico Morning Edition for education it appears that after declaring that the USDOE would give states flexibility in determining their accountability measures— which MIGHT have given them some flexibility— the USDOE is rejecting any metrics that move away from standardized tests based on grade levels. Here’s Politico reporter Benjamin Wermund’s analysis of on state’s experience at trying to move away from the “traditional” model of accountability by using scale scores instead of “grade levels”:

Connecticut, in its updated plan, stands by the use of scale scores to measure academic achievement, rather than grade-level proficiency. Scale scores convert a student’s grades to a common scale – for example, 300 to 900 – enabling educators to distinguish the relative performance of students at the high and low ends of the same proficiency level. The Education Department told Connecticut in June that the law requires a greater focus on whether students are performing at grade-level. And a team of federal reviewers, who separately provided notes on the plan, said the state’s approach to grading schools “lacks transparency.”

But Connecticut officials disagree. “Webster’s dictionary defines proficiency not only as a state of being proficient, but also as an advancement in knowledge or skill,” they write in their revised plan, which calls scale scores “the most accurate measure of a student’s proficiency.” Connecticut’s new plan says that “characterizing a student’s achievement solely as falling into an achievement level is an extreme oversimplification,” and “solely relying on a binary proficient/not proficient approach encourages unsound educational practices.” Colorado and Massachusetts also want to use scale scores. Massachusetts received similarly discouraging feedback from the Education Department, while Colorado is still waiting. Read Connecticut’s revised plan.

If ESSA does require “a greater focus on whether students are performing at grade-level” then there is yet another reason to lament it’s passage. Scale scores are not a perfect means of determining mastery, but they DO move the thinking of educators, parents, and decision-makers away from the statistical artifact of “grade level scores” and compel them to be more open-minded to different forms of accountability and instruction. If ESSA does NOT explicitly require “a greater focus on whether students are performing at grade-level”, then I hope that Lamar Alexander and other Senators will speak out against this interpretation by USDOE. If ESSA’s intent is to fulfill Betsy DeVos’ stated ideal of pushing for  “…reforms locally that will help to ensure all children, no matter their zip code, have access to an education environment that works for them”, allowing states to set their own accountability standards is a step in the right direction.

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