HALL MONITOR — Don’t Make Milwaukee Lake Woebegon

October 1, 2017

By Jay Bullock

When Garrison Keillor retired from A Prairie Home Companion last year, his News from Lake Woebegon segment retired with him.

In that fictional Minnesota town, “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”

It always drove me crazy when I heard that slogan. You simply can’t call everyone above average. Half of any group will always be below average. Average also has a specific meaning when describing academic
achievement.

Last month I wrote about the mandates handed down to teachers from the Milwaukee Public Schools administration. One is to publicly post student scores from the STAR “universal screener” test, such as the percentile rank for every student.

Percentile rank shows, after Johnny takes the STAR, that Johnny reads or does math better than some percent of all students who take the test. If Johnny’s at the 80th percentile, he’s smarter than 80 percent of students his age. If Johnny’s at the 50th percentile he’s, well, average.

MPS uses percentile ranks to create “target” scores. Students can be above, at, or below the target based on their percentile rank.

You have perhaps guessed the punch line: To be “on target,” students must be well above average, at least in the 60th percentile for reading and at least in the 75th percentile in math. In fact, students can no longer be “above target” in math at all. A student scoring at the 100th percentile, better than pretty much any other child taking the STAR nationwide, is merely “on target.”

MPS told teachers these unrealistic targets will “better predict proficiency” on the state achievement tests — Wisconsin Forward Exam and ACT Aspire.
I hate to say it, but this almost makes sense, given the state’s massive recent shift of proficiency goalposts.

States started moving proficiency goalposts in the late 2000s as they realized that the 100 percent proficiency demanded by 2002’s “No Child Left Behind Act” was impossible.

Because states feared punitive measures for missing universal proficiency, they applied for waivers from the U.S. Department of Education. That process demanded states adopt stricter proficiency standards. In 2012, Wisconsin opted, like many other states, to use standards defined by the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), or “the nation’s report card”.

This was a mistake.

We can debate whether Wisconsin’s previous proficiency standards were too high or too low, but according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) we were, again, average.

Since the switch, however, barely half of Wisconsin’s students score proficient or higher on annual state tests. Regardless of your opinion of MPS or public education in general, it is simply ridiculous to think half of Wisconsin kids can’t read or do math at grade level, especially when we continue to score well versus other states on measures like the ACT.

At the time of the shift, both NAEP and individual states used the word “proficient.” But they did not mean the same thing. States typically defined proficient as at grade level, a bit above average but not in the top tier. In other words, grades of A and B. Maybe a C+.

But NAEP called that same level of achievement “basic.” “Proficient was akin to a solid A,” according to Diane Ravitch, former NAEP board member and current education-reform skeptic.

NCES data show that before states started moving goalposts, not a single state’s definition of “proficient” met the NAEP standard of “proficient” in math. In reading, just a handful did.

When it began in the 1970s, NAEP didn’t label student achievement at all and only began to do so under pressure in the 1990s. The process of defining levels like basic or proficient was plagued by scandal. Repeated reviews, including one by the non-partisan General Accounting Office in 1993, declared NAEP measures of proficiency should not be used as a model
or reference point by anyone else.

But here we are, describing virtually every MPS student as “below target” because of those NAEP definitions.

Oh, come on, Jay, you say. Doesn’t the below target label light a fire under these kids?

No.

In fact, recent research indicates that the more we tell underprivileged students they are failures, and that this failure is because of their own action (or inaction) rather than larger systemic issues, the more likely they are to see a decline in self-esteem and an increase in risky behavior.

We tell successful students, you know, the children in Lake Woebegon, or, in Milwaukee’s wealthier suburbs, that success comes from hard work and “grit.” Those students see no problem with that. They and their families are generally successful. The meritocracy is working as intended!

But a study published this summer in the journal Child Development reports that when told the same thing, struggling students attribute failure to their own flaws: I didn’t work hard enough, maybe, or I guess I don’t have grit. This leaves them less likely to bother trying because they internalize these messages and think they’ll just fail anyway.

In June the study’s lead author told The Atlantic “there’s this element of people think of me this way anyway, so this must be who I am.”

Yes, student effort does affect student achievement. But decades of research shows the best predictor of achievement is not “grit” but the zipcode children are born in. Centuries of American segregation and economic inequality weigh more heavily than grit on MPS students’ achievement.

Neither my students nor I can fix segregation and economic inequality. Why, then, force my students to feel that much more marginalized? I am not asking we lie; students below grade level should be identified and helped to improve.

But we should also be able to tell our grade-level students that they’re successful, rather than telling them they are “below target.” Don’t try to make Milwaukee Lake Woebegon.

Jay Bullock teaches English at Bay View High School. Email him at mpshallmonitor@gmail.com.

Copyright 2016 by Bay View Compass. All rights reserved.
This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments

Comment on this Bay View Compass item.