Arizona’s Whiz, California’s Dunce

Barbara Keeler is a writer of state reading tests and textbooks, most recently "Writing With the Five Paragraph Model."

Under No Child Left Behind, the federal education law, accountability depends on reading and math standards set by individual states. Problem is, the standards vary widely. A student well prepared to pass an exam in one state may flunk it in another simply because the tests reflect different standards.

What computation skills are first-grade math students required to learn? In Indiana, it’s addition and subtraction with maximum sums of 20. In Idaho, maximum sums of 10; In Texas, maximum sums of 18; In Nevada, sums to 10; In California, sums to 20 and “solve addition and subtraction problems with one- and two-digit numbers (e.g., 5 + 58).”

What coins are the first-graders supposed to recognize and value? In Oklahoma, it’s pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters, while in Ohio, all coins including the half-dollar and dollar. Across the border in Indiana, students must know their pennies, nickels and dimes. Ditto in Idaho.

These disparities remain in the third grade, when students are tested under No Child Left Behind. A third-grader in Stateline, Nev., has mastered this standard: “Read, write, order and compare numbers from 0-999.” Shortly before the test, her family moves to South Lake Tahoe, and -- yikes! -- she is expected to read, write, order and compare whole numbers to 10,000. Failing the test may hold her back, and her teacher and school would be held accountable.


A California student who moved to Arizona would be expected to “read whole numbers in contextual situations (through six-digit numbers)” in his new home. An Arizona student who had mastered her state’s standard -- “add two three-digit whole numbers"-- would face a greater challenge in California, which requires her to “find the sum or difference of two whole numbers between 0 and 10,000.”

Put another way, she would be Harry Potter’s whiz kid friend Hermione Granger in Arizona but upon arriving in California, she would become the dunce-ish Neville Longbottom. Who should be blamed?