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Higher MEAP Cut Scores and what still needs to be done

February 14, 2011

The Michigan State Board of Education has raised the MEAP Cut Scores to be more in line with the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress).  This is a very good thing, as it will more adequately let parents know which schools are failing to properly educate their children.  Schools that once could claim that 80% of their children were proficient in math, reading, science, or social studies now may have only 40% proficient under the new standards.  If your child is the group that previously was listed as proficient but now is not, that will probably make you question whether your child has been adequately educated and if he or she wasn’t, why weren’t you notified earlier.

But raising MEAP Cut Scores only solves part of the problem.

The MEAP is a high jump competition for education, but played under quirky rules.  Under the previous MEAP Cut Scores, the bar was set at 4 feet high and the winner was the school that had the most athletes who could jump over the bar.  Under the new MEAP Cut Scores, the bar has been moved to 5 feet high, but the winner is still the school with the most number of athletes who can jump the bar.

What does mean for high jumpers?  If you are a high jumper who starts the season able to clear 5 feet, the coach is satisfied with you and is happy because no additional effort needs to be put in getting you to achieve the stated goal.  At practices, the bar will be set at 5 feet and everyone will work on jumping a 5 foot bar.  The coach and assistants will work to make sure as many athletes as possible can jump a 5 foot bar and will spend extra time and energy teaching technique and building muscles with those who are just shy of the 5 foot mark so that they can clear the bar too.  But what about the athletes who could already clear the bar?   The coach need not expend any extra energy on them.  They can already meet the stated goal and the coach’s time is better spent helping those who barely can’t clear the bar.  Those who already meet the 5 foot standard will not be pushed to see if they could jump 6 or 7 feet.

Ironically, raising the MEAP Cut Scores could also hurt the other end of the spectrum as well.  If the coach knows that an athlete will never be able to make a 5 foot jump, why should the coach expend extra energy in a pointless task?  They won’t raise the school’s score in the competition with an athlete who has improved their jump to 4 foot 6 or 4 foot 9.  Again, the incentive is to coach athletes who can potentially clear the height and not focus on the upper or lower ends of the spectrum.

You probably ask how I can be so cynical about teachers and who they will choose to spend time educating.  First, I have talked with some teachers about who they are currently pressured to educate and it fits with my analysis above.  The schools are given extra financial incentive by the government to educate special needs children, but the emphasis in classroom teaching is on getting the below average students educated to a point where they can pass whatever standards the school and government have set for that grade.  Second, the scrutiny and the pressure is about to increase considerably with the new MEAP Cut Scores.  Parents will be appalled by the percent of students who are proficient and schools will need to make sure as high a percentage of students as possible can meet the new standards.  This will be the focus for the coming years.  Third, there is a movement to tie teachers’ raises to their students’ test scores.  There will be strong financial incentive for teachers to spend their time and energy educating those who can pass the MEAP with some help.  If your boss ties your raise and bonus to one project, will you expend much time on another project even if you believe it to be just as important?  There are many teachers who will make the effort to ensure every student is properly educated, but we need to recognize that their employers – the schools, the government, and ultimately us taxpayers – are placing significant pressure on them to primarily educate this one subset of students.

What can be done?

  • First, scores should be tied to yearly student progress.  Each student should be tested at the beginning of the year and the end of the year and the difference in each subject reported.
  • Second, it should not be a straight reporting of what percentage of the class made one year’s progress lest the focus shift to only those students who can make a year’s progress.  This will lead to students who cannot progress as quickly as necessary being ignored or students who can do more than one’s years work being denied the right to progress as fast as they can.
  • Third, the standardized test should show what depth of knowledge has been obtained by the student by having the difficultly of some questions be above expected proficiency for that grade.  The ACT and the SAT both do this quite well, but the MEAP does not.
  • Fourth, schools should also report the average grades on a standardized test, not just what percentage passed.  Preferably this would be done as a bell curve so as to reveal whether either end of the spectrum is being ignored.

Raising the MEAP Cut Scores is an important first step, but it should not be viewed as panacea for all of our school system’s ailments.

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