Probing “Proficiency”

By Sean Cavanagh — June 24, 2008 1 min read

The Center on Education Policy has released a new study on what’s happened with student achievement since the inception of No Child Left Behind. It concludes that 1) state achievement has risen in math and reading; and that 2) the achievement gap between white and minority students appears to have closed, at least judging by students’ performance on state tests, and to a lesser extent, by their performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

One measure the CEP report uses is the percent of students scoring at the “proficient” level on their state tests.

Last year, I wrote about a federal study that detailed the vastly different standards that states use in determining whether their students meet that proficient mark. If states can label a student as “proficient” by either a very stringent or very lax standard, many observers say, it raises questions about whether that term has any real meaning.

Let me refer you to another good, and as far as I can tell, largely overlooked source of information on the disparities in state testing standards. Don McLaughlin, a former chief scientist at the American Institutes for Research, was the lead author on a pair of studies that compared state math and reading test results against NAEP.

McLaughlin’s reports received little attention when they were published by the federal National Center for Education Statistics earlier this year. But they reveal tremendous gaps in how high or low some states set the bar for proficiency. They also include detailed studies of individual states’ testing policies and student performance vs. NAEP.

One finding in McLaughlin’s study is that in math the achievement gap that states report on their tests between white and minority students tends to be somewhat smaller than it is on their NAEP results. This gap is not as pronounced in reading, Mr. McLaughlin told me.

In my story on the CEP study, Bruce Fuller of the University of California, Berkeley, questions whether the achievement gap has really narrowed as much as states are claiming.

McLaughlin’s reports, particularly their profiles of individual states, should be a good source of info for education researchers -- as well as for my fellow ink-stained wretches in the news business.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.