In public radio's mythical Lake Wobegon, "all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average."
The first two conditions are merely unlikely. The third one is a mathematical absurdity. However, a new survey suggests that almost all parents believe it to be true.
In a recent survey of public school parents, 90 percent stated that their children were performing on or above grade level in both math and reading. Parents held fast to this sunny belief no matter their own income, education level, race or ethnicity.
The nationally administered test known as the Nation's Report Card, or NAEP, suggests a very different reality. About half of white students are on grade level in math and reading by fourth grade; the percentages are lower for African-Americans and Hispanics.
Bibb Hubbard founded the new organization, Learning Heroes, that commissioned the nationwide survey of 1,300 parents of kids in grades K-8. She calls this result "shocking."
"There is this cognitive dissonance happening," Hubbard says. "We've got to find good, productive ways to educate and inform parents."
The mission of Learning Heroes is to provide tools and resources to do just that. As new standards, new curricula and new tests are sweeping through schools, they are trying to help parents understand what is expected of students so they can, in turn, help their students succeed.
Morgan Polikoff, who researches K-12 education policy at the University of Southern California, says the "Lake Wobegon effect" is actually no surprise.
"Kids are getting passed on from grade to grade, a large percentage of kids graduate high school on time," he explains. "So certainly parents have been getting the message for a long time that their kids are doing just fine."
In fact, the high school graduation rate is over 80 percent, and fewer than 2 percent of students are held back a grade, so perhaps parents can't be blamed for thinking their own kids are at least on par with their peers.
Polikoff points out that on the other hand, the grade-level standards on the NAEP could be seen as "ambitious." But most state tests don't show 90 percent of kids performing on grade level, either — not even close.
But, he adds, the disconnect between parent perceptions and test scores is still "a problem."
First of all, many high school graduates must take remedial classes when they get to college, and the college graduation rate is relatively low.
"It also could be an equity problem," says Polikoff, noting that "the gaps between reality and perception" are larger for African-American and Hispanic parents than for others.
The Common Core, Polikoff points out, once offered the prospect of having most students around the country take the same annual tests aligned to the same standards. This might have made it easier for parents to compare and build a general understanding of what it means to be "on grade level." But the reality in the past few years has been messier: states adopting, then abandoning the Core, and joining, then leaving, the two official Common Core testing consortia, Smarter Balanced and PARCC. So there is less of a critical mass behind any one test. Even passing or "cut" scores can change from year to year.
The solution Hubbard offers is more about people than test scores. "Build deeper relationships and ask tougher questions of your student's teachers," she suggests. "Instead of the teacher just saying, 'He's a great kid,' ask, 'Is he reading on grade level?' "