School & District Management

States Raise ‘Proficient’ Bar on Tests in Last 10 Years, Study Finds

By Catherine Gewertz — August 21, 2019 2 min read
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Most states have raised their cutoff scores for proficiency on state tests in the last decade, according to a study released Wednesday.

The report, by the National Center for Education Statistics, converts each state’s cutoff score for proficiency into an equivalent score on the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, math and reading tests in 4th and 8th grades.

That “mapping” process found that states have made it harder for students to demonstrate proficiency on their tests. In 2007, states’ cutoff points for proficiency in 4th grade reading were as low as the equivalent of 163 on NAEP’s 0-500 point scale. By 2017, no state’s cutoff point was less than 200.

In 4th grade math, states had cutoff scores for proficiency as low as 198 in 2007. By 2017, no state’s threshold score was lower than 220.

Similarly, in 2007, cutoff scores for proficiency on state tests in 8th grade reading were as low as 211, but by 2017, all states had proficiency thresholds of 245 or higher. In 8th grade math, the lowest cutoff point for proficiency in 2007 was 252, but by 2017, it had risen to 277.

Peggy G. Carr, who oversees NAEP as the NCES’ associate commissioner for assessments, said in a conference call with reporters that the states “with the lowest levels of rigor” in their proficiency cutoff points “are most likely the ones second-guessing” where they set those cutoffs, perhaps because the mapping studies compare them to other states.

Even as states raised those thresholds, though, most still had definitions of proficiency that fell below NAEP’s. Overall, their cutoff scores for proficiency fell mostly in NAEP’s “basic” range.

In reading, only two states in grade 4, Utah and Massachusetts, and five states in grade 8 had proficiency cutoff points in NAEP’s “proficient” range.

Math offered a rosier picture: 11 states had proficiency cutoff scores in NAEP’s “proficient” range in grade 4, and seven had cutoff scores at that level on their grade 8 math tests.

The mapping study has been controversial. Assessment experts have argued that states’ own tests are different enough from NAEP’s that putting them on the same score scale is misleading. They’ve also noted that NAEP’s achievement levels have always been considered aspirational.

Carr said in the conference call that states typically aim for grade-level proficiency, while NAEP’s idea of proficiency reflects “a more challenging standard.”

See also:

Is ‘Proficient’ Insufficient? A New Wrinkle in the Debate Over NAEP Achievement Levels

PARCC Sets the Tougher Bar Among Shared Tests, Study Shows

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.