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Why Didn't Your Child Pass the State Math Test? States Better Have a Clear Answer

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Is your child a good student? You might be in for a shock. Come next year, he might fail your state's math test, and that could be just the wake-up call you need. Yet if you're like most parents, you won't just accept the state test result on faith.

Millions of parents like you are going to face this situation. This week, dozens of states are coming together to road test new exams that measure students' performance on Common Core State Standards. As states decide what scores students need to pass those tests when they go live next year -- and many experts believe states will set the bar high -- state officials need to come up with a very clear justification of their decision.

Business leaders know that passing scores should be high. For years, states have set the bar low, giving educators, students and parents the mistaken impression that schools were preparing youngsters for college and career. We cannot afford such complacency at a time when employers -- the consumers of the education pipeline -- cannot find people with the skills to do some of the nation's most rewarding and important work. If "proficiency" is to mean anything at all, it must reflect the real and growing demand for knowledge and skills in a competitive global economy. A first-year college math course or job interview should not be the first place where students discover they lack the skills to succeed.

Yet if the bar rises on state tests and fewer students pass, state officials may face a public backlash. Just look at New York. The state is still in an uproar about the results of its 2013 math and English Language Arts tests, which measured how well students learned the state's new, more challenging Common Core Standards. The share of students passing the tests plummeted by some 30 percentage points from the year before, and some critics are saying the tests are just too hard.

These critics are probably wrong, but it will be no easy task to convince a mother in White Plains that her honors student is suddenly below grade level unless the state can make a clear and convincing case for what "passing" should look like. A corresponding step, of course, is to give teachers and students the support they need to meet the higher standard -- but I will address that challenge in another blog.

New York is just the beginning. After states field test new exams, they have to come together to set the scores students need to pass. If they set a high bar without clarifying why they came to that decision, states will look like they are making their tests harder to pass just for the sake of it.

So how should states set a passing score that actually means something? One possibility is for states to peg their passing scores to an international standard. At a time when so many U.S. workers are competing for jobs with workers across the globe, we need to know just how well our young people stack up against their peers in high performing countries. For example, Gary Phillips at the American Institutes for Research sketched out a method for "benchmarking" states' passing scores against a standard that prevails in countries whose students do well in international tests.

In fact, compared to that international standard, New York's disappointing 2013 results might not be that far off the mark. In 2007, New York reported rosy test results on its math tests: 81 percent of its 4th graders and 60 percent of its 8th graders had "passed." Phillips reviewed those 2007 results and offered a gloomier conclusion: he estimated that only 43 percent of 4th graders and 28 percent of 8th graders in New York would have met the international standard. As it happens, the state's 2013 test results are in the same ballpark: 36 percent and 27 percent, respectively.

Of course, any quick and dirty comparison between Phillips' estimate and New York's 2013 results is hardly water tight, and there may be viable alternatives to international benchmarking. But his work is surely thought-provoking. States that set such benchmarks would send a strong signal to businesses that they are serious about creating a workforce that can compete in the global marketplace.

As states anxiously watch what unfolds during the field tests, let's hope they are hard at work on clear justifications for where they plan to set the bar. Just as important, let's hope they share those justifications far and wide. Everyone needs to be confident in the results.