NCLB and the Meaning of Proficiency

January 15, 2008 1 min read

In this comment on a previous post, a mom says that the goal of 100 percent proficiency is possible. Using the real-life example of her dyslexic son, she says that students can make dramatic progress. But can they all reach proficiency?

That question would be a lot easier to answer if everyone knew what proficiency means. As I reported last year, nobody can agree on the definition. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings says that it means students achieving at grade level, as she repeated again at the National Press Club last week.

But does everybody believe that? In its statement of purpose, the law says that states’ definitions of proficiency should be “challenging.” It says nothing about average performance. What’s more, the law also requires states to participate in the National Assessment of Educational Progress to hold states’ definitions up to a common benchmark. Advocates use those scores to say that states are setting the bar too low. (For just two examples, see here and here.) But NAEP’s proficiency definition is so challenging that not even those countries with the highest performance on international tests would meet NCLB’s goal of universal proficiency, Richard Rothstein argues in this 2006 paper and the American Institutes for Research concludes in this 2007 analysis.

It may be true that all students can make dramatic gains in their achievement. Maybe all of them can reach grade-level performance. But can they all reach the level of challenging standards?

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A version of this news article first appeared in the NCLB: Act II blog.