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A question about measurement and educational policy

Rick Perlstein in the Village Voice writes that the No Child Left Behind law sets unrealistic targets:

You’ve heard of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, the one that produces those anguished news reports every four years about all the countries American schoolchildren lag behind in basic skills. But according to the TIMSS, if Minnesota were a country, it would have the second-best science scores and the seventh best in math. By No Child Left Behind’s statutorily required benchmarks of “Adequate Yearly Progress,” however, only 42 percent of Minnesota fourth-graders were proficient in math. And NCLB’s test targets increase every year. So by one estimate, in 2014, some 80 percent of the schools in Minnesota’s world-class education system will be rated “failures.”

The benchmarks are insane, you see. If one group within a school out of the 37 categories NCLB measures “fails,” the entire school does. Which means, according to the president of the American Educational Research Association, 12th-graders should be proficient in math in exactly 166 years.

I assume the bit about 166 years is an exaggeration, but is the preceding part really true? Or maybe the questions are: first, is it true that only 42% of Minnesota’s seventh-best-in-the-world fourth graders are proficient in math? Second, are these targets unrealistic? In writing these tests, I’d think there would be measurement issues–what should be on the test, how should it be administered, and so forth–and then a definition of the threshold for “passing,” which in itself doesn’t really mean anything until it’s tied to policies.

Perlstein suggests that the high thresholds are a political ploy to wreck the public education system and allow the Bush administration to have more control over schools. Interestingly, some conservatives seem to have doubts about No Child Left Behind for a similar reason of skepticism about centralized government control. I’m still a little skeptical but certainly would claim no expertise here.

As a statistician or policy analyst, I am interested in the questions about measurement, setting possibly unrealistic goals, and so forth. But, with no knowledge at all about education policy, all I can say is I’d like to know more.