School & District Management

Science ‘Proficiency’ Wide Ranging Across States

By Erik W. Robelen — December 14, 2011 4 min read
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A student in New Hampshire or Rhode Island is likely to have a much tougher time achieving a passing score on a state science exam than one in Virginia or Tennessee, a new analysis suggests. But don’t blame it on the schools.

The reason is that states set the bar for science “proficiency” at widely varying levels, concludes the report, issued last week by the business coalition Change the Equation in collaboration with the American Institutes for Research.

Billed as the first-ever national analysis of how states define proficiency on science assessments, the study found that states have “radically different targets” for what their 8th graders should know and be able to do in science. And in many instances, what a state has deemed a proficient score is equivalent to below “basic” on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in science.

“At a time when the demand for robust skills and knowledge in science has gone global, ‘proficiency’ may have more to do with where you live than what you have learned,” the report says. “This hodgepodge undercuts a major reason why we have tests in the first place: to provide reliable information on how well we’re preparing students for the challenges of the global economy.”

‘Does It Matter?’

Such analyses of state cutoff scores in reading and math have been going on for some time, and generally have reached the same conclusion, including a study issued last summer by the National Center for Education Statistics.

The new report comes as a major effort is under way to develop a set of common, “next generation” science standards, which could be an important first step toward creating more aligned, and more rigorous, expectations for students around the nation.

The study, looking at 37 states in which relevant data were available, compares the passing scores states set on their 2009 8th grade science tests by measuring them against the 2009 NAEP in science. The researchers took each state’s passing score and mapped it onto the 300-point NAEP scale, allowing them to equate states’ standards for “basic,” “proficient,” and “advanced” with NAEP scores.

In 15 of the 37 states examined—California, Connecticut, North Carolina, Texas, and Virginia, among them—the state bar for proficiency was actually lower than the NAEP threshold for basic. New Hampshire and Rhode Island were the only states that had a higher proficiency threshold than NAEP, while in Massachusetts, it was about the same.

But Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, cautioned that looking at state cutoff scores may not say much about the quality of education students in a given state receive. In a quick analysis, he found no clear connection between where a state sets its proficiency target and how its students performed on the 2009 NAEP in science. He said, for instance, that NAEP achievement was all over the board for the 15 states the study says set their proficiency bars below the NAEP basic level. Six of those states scored above the national average for 8th grade science, five scored at about the same level as the national average, and four scored below it.

“To me the question is: Does it matter?” Mr. Loveless said of where states set the bar for proficiency. “And it turns out, it doesn’t. ... There is no statistically significant relationship between how high states set their cut points and how well they score on NAEP.”

Charles Pyle, a spokesman for the Virginia education department, made much the same point about his state. Although, according to the report, Virginia’s proficiency bar in science is set lower than all of the other states examined, its achievement levels tell a different story.

Virginia students scored above the national average on the 2009 science NAEP for both 4th and 8th grades. In fact, its 4th grade scores were among the highest for all states.

Mr. Pyle also noted that one important factor in Virginia is that science assessments are considered high-stakes tests for both students and schools.

In addition, some experts have long suggested that NAEP’s definition of proficiency in various subjects is too stringent.

Confusing Parents

Still, it seems clear from the new study that states do not agree on what level of science learning is needed. And the study warns that parents in many states may be getting a distorted view of student achievement.

“It gets confusing,” said Claus von Zastrow, the research director for Change the Equation, a coalition of more than 110 corporate chief executive officers working to improve stem education. “In states that set a particularly low bar, a parent might conclude that their child is doing very well, … but that child could be performing in the bottom quartile of all schools nationally.”

The report is part of an ongoing effort by the business organization to examine the condition of learning in the stem fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Earlier this year, it released a set of state-by-state stem “Vital Signs” reports. At that time, the group also sent letters to all the nation’s governors calling for higher proficiency standards in science and math.

The study also seeks to put state proficiency standards in context by comparing them with the findings of a 2009 study by ACT Inc. It notes that while two-thirds of the states examined reported that most of their 8th graders were proficient in science, the act analysis found that only 8 percent of U.S. 8th graders were on track to do well in introductory college science courses.

A version of this article appeared in the December 15, 2011 edition of Education Week as Science ‘Proficiency’ in One State Misses the Bar in Another


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