In spite of major efforts on my part to rise above contemporary culture shock, I must admit failure, which perhaps can be excused because I tried really hard.
The surprise came when a friend described to me his recent correspondence with Shirley Tilghman, highly skilled professional educatrix, presently employed as the president of Princeton University. He questioned her as to the knowledge base in the subjects of history and government of the present undergraduate body, particularly with regard to the recent survey finding that, in general, the incoming freshmen-oops, make that freshpersons-seem to know more about such disciplines than the outgoing seniors.
There's an old joke on this subject: why are universities such vast repositories of knowledge? Because every year the arriving freshmen each bring a little in, while the outgoing seniors take very little with them, and so bit by bit the knowledge accumulates. And there's a parallel pattern in the public schools, as a recent (Nov. 17, 2008) oped in the St. Johnsbury Caledonian-Record describes "younger kids out-performing older kids year after year."
The NECAP test results in the St. Johnsbury school showed 36 percent of fourth graders proficient in science. By 8th grade, the proficiency percentage is down to nine.
We know that NECAP -New England Common Assessment Program-tests are designed to be easier than the Federal NAEP -National Assessment of Educational Progress-tests. This explains why Vermont schools spend extra money to purchase and administer the NECAPs, and then publish the seemingly superior scores. Largely unpublished (by intent) are the much lower scores from the NAEPs, which are free but mandatory, for a statistically selected sample of students. But this isn't a case of comparing the pay-to-use tests with the free tests; it's a case of measuring lower grade-level NECAP's against upper-grade-level NECAPs. The Caledonian-Record reports St.Johnsbury Superintendent Nicole Saginor describing the test results as "good news".
That's not how other Vermont Superintendents have chosen to be quoted on the painful subject of student test results: more typical is Shoreham Principal Heather Best, who is quoted in the Addison Independent (30 March 09) as arguing that "the NECAP results don't paint a valid picture of what is going on in the classroom". Valid pictures apparently aren't being painted in the hallowed halls of post-secondary education ivy, either.
From Princeton, President Tilghman answered her West Virginia alumnus as follows: "Princeton students are such a remarkable group that they can't be judged by fact-based tests". That's where I failed the contemporary-culture-shock test; within living memory, the educational culture once used fact-based tests at every level from K to 12 to determine grade-to-grade promotion, and universities used them to see whether engineers about to graduate were capable of designing bridges which wouldn't fail under traffic load, whether wannabe economists had learned how to qualify mortgage loan applicants, whether future agronomists had become reasonably expert in crop-seed DNA analysis. As recent untoward events have suggested, that sort of educational rigor doesn't prevail any more, illustrating just how fact-based tests have become the Rodney Dangerfields of formal education: they don't get no respect. Except, superficially, when they seem to show improvement: a recent (March 25, 2009) Rutland Herald headline says: "Test Results Improving Statewide"; you have to read deep into the article to learn that the good news is that 88 Vermont schools, this year, failed to meet federal Adequate Yearly Progress standards, down from 116 last year.
If you were to speculate that educators, forced to explain poor student test results, choose to minimize test importance, you might likewise conjecture a similar response to AYP, the Washington requirement -oh, how unreasonable-that almost all students be testing at "proficient" by 2014, up from about a third now, using the NAEP tests, and be making annual progress toward that goal. You'd be right. Here's a typical educator shot at AYP, from a new angle : any Federal demand that almost all students be "proficient" raises the Lake Woebegone statistical impossibility, referencing the fictional National Public Radio community "where all the students are above average". Hence, AYP is silly, we are to conclude, along with its "proficiency" target.
Meanwhile, the federal NAEP test numbers show that, in 2007, only 41 percent of Vermont eighth graders could achieve "proficient" (roughly, the skill to function at grade level) in math. If 50 percent could so achieve, would that be "average"? It would be quite an improvement.
Former Vermonter Martin Harris lives in Tennessee.