State ‘Proficiency’ Ratings Still Fall Short of National Benchmarks

Published August 23, 2011

Though 21 states have made their standardized tests more rigorous since 2007, most still label “proficient” what independent, national tests call a “basic” level of learning, says a recent report from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). 

The data explains why so many students can score well on state tests yet perform poorly on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a well-regarded national test, the report observes.

Since No Child Left Behind was enacted in 2001, standardized testing has become a focal point of education reform. The federal law requires nearly all children test “proficient” by 2014, but allowed states to set their own definitions of proficiency. Federal law prohibits the Department of Education from setting curricula and assessments. 

“NAEP is especially useful for comparing students in the various states on various academic subjects, as NAEP is the only common assessment given across the country,” said Arnold Goldstein, an NCES program director. 

The August report said 35 states had proficiency standards in fourth-grade reading that fall below a “basic” score on the NAEP, and 15 other states’ standards were in the NAEP’s “basic” range.
“In grade eight reading,” the report stated, “16 of 50 states set standards that were lower than the cut-point for Basic performance on NAEP and another 34 were in the NAEP Basic range.” Seven states set proficiency standards below “basic” for fourth grade math, and 42 set fourth grade math proficiency within NAEP’s “basic” range.

States Making Adjustments
Low NAEP marks have led several states to increase proficiency standards recently. 

“The country still has a long way to go on this,” said William Evers, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. “[States] have incentives to lower their standards to put a better name on poor results. But they also have scrutiny from parents and journalists and political figures.”

Twenty-one of the 34 states changing their assessments had slightly increased the difficulty of their standardized tests, the NCES report says. Between 2007 and 2009, five states eased testing benchmarks.

Common Core ‘Race to the Middle’
To pursue federal funds, all but six states have adopted Common Core State Standards pushed by the Obama administration. The most recent state to adopt them was Washington, in July.

Massachusetts previously offered the best standards in the country, but lowered them to adopt Common Core in 2010.

“We regarded Common Core standards as a major academic downgrade,” says Jamie Gass, director of the Pioneer Institute’s Center for School Reform. 

The Common Core generally leans toward textbook reading, which tends to have a less challenging vocabulary than classic literature, Gass noted. 

“Common Core standards may have improved the standards in Mississippi or West Virginia or some of the lower or average-performing states, but they are a major downgrade for the high-performing schools,” Gass said. “We’re already calling this the Race to the Middle.”

Internet Info
“Mapping State Proficiency Standards Onto the NAEP Scales,” National Center for Education Statistics, August 2011.

Image by Renato Ganoza.