On the new,"more realistic" test scores released for New York State this week, 31 percent of students demonstrated "proficiency."
Coincidence? Perhaps, but it's got me thinking about something that's bothered me for a while...
It's important to understand that the drop in the proficiency rates for New York are due to changes in the tests, which now align with the standards for the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP). As Diane Ravitch explains, "proficient" is a very high level of achievement, and not at all related to performing on "grade level."
Reformy John King, NYSED Commissioner, has said that this new definition of "proficiency" is indicative of a student's readiness for "college and career". There is absolutely no reason to believe he is right, but for the sake of argument, let's concede his point.*
By King's own definitions, the New York State tests show that the percentage of today's students ready for "college and career" is roughly equivalent to the percentage of the total population holding 4-year college degrees.
Now, I keep hearing this phrase "college and career ready" from King and Arne Duncan and Merryl Tisch and Andrew Cuomo and all these other fine reformy folks (who, by the way, haven't a minute of public school teaching experience between them). All the defenders of the new cut scores in New York tell us that the new "proficient" is the same as "college and career ready." I know my comparison is a bit off because of age differences, but still: if we look at the percentages, the new definition of "proficiency" in New York State is really a proxy for "ready to pursue a four-year college degree."
Do these reformy-types honestly believe every child in New York State should have a four-year college education?
If they don't, then how many should go to four-year colleges? On what basis do they make this claim? Do they honestly think our economy can sustain more bachelors degree-holding workers? Especially since half of America's college graduates are in jobs that don't require a college degree? (Did you know more than 15% of taxi drivers have college degrees?)
There is no evidence that producing more four-year degree holders will do anything to improve overall wages, boost productivity, or ameliorate income inequity. The reformyists are pursuing a policy of increasing four-year college enrollment that has no evidence - educational or economic - to support it. And I suspect that most people understand this, which is why these folks use the term "college and career ready" instead of just "college" ready.
There are all kinds of important jobs this country must fill that do not require a bachelor's degree. The people who do these jobs could have productive and meaningful lives, if they could earn living wages, receive good health care, and expect dignified retirements. That our society denies so many people this basic standard of living has nothing whatsoever to do with whether they are ready to pursue four-year degrees. The unacceptable plutocracy we are now living is in no way a product of a lack of workers holding BAs.
"College and career ready" is a slick way to conflate good jobs - at least, what should be good jobs - with jobs requiring secondary education. But the standards for academic achievement need not be the same for a plumber and a doctor. Both are important jobs; both should pay well (not equally, but well); both require education. But making the plumber "ready" for the Ivy League won't raise his wages; it ultimately solves nothing.
Throwing "career" in with "college" is yet another way the reformies shift the blame for low wages to the education system. The implication in the phrase is that both tracks require equal "readiness," and that only this "readiness" can lead to higher wages. It's a distraction from the very real problem of people doing necessary jobs that don't pay well.
Of course, there is a serious, largely unaddressed problem related to college access: the pipeline to a four-year degree remains racist and classist. I don't see how further embedding a culture of testing fetishism helps, especially when the exams are so heavily correlated to economic status. But that's not really the agenda for the reformies anyway.
Again: this is all about making the public education system look as bad as possible, so privatizers can move in and teachers unions can lose power. It's a political agenda; it has nothing to do with education.
"College and career ready," like "achievement gap" and "x months of learning," is a useless, phony phrase designed to set the parameters of the debate in a way that favors those who would blame our country's serious problems almost exclusively on our public schools. Be on your guard whenever you hear it used - you're probably being conned.
"College and career ready": one of our favorite phrases!
* I realize I'm opening up a can of worms here and then walking away before baiting my hook. I probably should write more later, but for now:
There may well be a correlation between the number of students who eventually earn college degrees and the number who are "proficient" on the NAEP. That doesn't necessarily make the NAEP a good predictor of individual college readiness, let alone academic achievement. If the test is noisy, we may get similar percentages, but lots of data points that are in error.
The critiques of the New York tests are just coming in, and they are not inspiring. Clearly, the tests measure something; whether that's school efficiency, student achievement, or college readiness is still up for debate.