The Solution Illusion?

Fordham Foundation has a new report out, The Proficiency Illusion, that is garnering a lot of attention. Big Punchlines: Surprise! State tests often are not that hard and there is a lot of variance. More subtle issue: Rather than an NCLB inspired race to the bottom there is what Fordham characterizes as a “walk to the middle.”

This matters because the Fordhamites are now pivoting off of No Child Left Behind to call for national standards. Yet the problems they point out are generally predictable and pre-date the No Child law (again, context and history), not as extreme as even they were claiming recently (a race to the bottom worries me, a walk to the middle, not so much), and won’t be magically solved by national standards anyway. This is as much a political problem as a substitutive one. Concentrated costs, organized and mobilized opposition, generalized and difficult to discern benefits. That’s long been a tough nut to crack in American politics.

Still, the report is well worth reading because it brings a lot of evidence to the table. But, because national standards, should they come, are a long way off, the real trick in policymaking today is about ensuring some sort of reasonable benchmarking of state standards and real transparency. The federal framework wrapped around state standards is likely the one we’re going to be working with for some time to come. So I wish Fordham had offered more ideas along those lines with this report rather than just hand-wringing and a call to backwards map standards from high school. For instance there are a bunch of boring but important steps we could take now to get on top of the cut score issue (pdf). Shooting the moon is nice, but games are won by winning a lot of hands.

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