Not All Agree on Meaning of NCLB Proficiency

By David J. Hoff — April 17, 2007 9 min read
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The goal of the No Child Left Behind Act is simply stated: All children should be proficient in reading and mathematics by the end of the 2013-14 school year. But more than five years after the law was enacted, it remains unclear what “proficient” means.

Because the federal law gives the states the power to define proficiency, there are 50 different definitions of the term. And policymakers are sending mixed messages about how to judge the rigor of each state’s standards.

Some experts criticize the states for not matching the proficiency levels in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP. U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings and others suggest the goal should reflect grade-level expectations.

“It sounds good, and we think we know what it means,” Laura S. Hamilton, a senior behavioral scientist for the RAND Corp., said of the proficiency goal. “In reality, it’s almost meaningless.”

Still, Secretary Spellings, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and other leading federal policymakers say that universal academic proficiency is one of the most important principles in the law and should be retained as Congress works to reauthorize the NCLB legislation this year. Many endorse adding science to the list of subjects students should be expected to master by the 2013-14 deadline.

“The goal of all children being able to read, do math, and do science at grade level is the right goal to keep our eye on even as we make adjustments in how we get there,” said Aaron K. Albright, the press secretary for Democrats on for the House Education and Labor Committee, of which Rep. Miller is the chairman. “Nothing is more important to our country than providing each and every child with a first-rate, world-class education.”

As Congress considers changes to the law, it will have to address the question of what it means to be proficient and who will write that definition.

State or National?

When Congress passed the No Child Left Behind measure in late 2001, it relied on a long-standing policy of not directing states or school districts on what to teach or how to teach it. The law gives states the authority to set their own subject-matter standards and to define what it means for students to demonstrate they are proficient, using assessments linked to those standards.

The Bush administration says it remains committed to honoring states’ authority to set their own standards and define proficiency as they see fit.

“It’s important for there to be a sense of buy-in and commitment” from states, said Kerri L. Briggs, the Department of Education’s acting assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education and President Bush’s nominee for that post.

But many researchers and other critical observers of the proficiency provisions suggest that states haven’t set challenging standards under the law, especially compared with NAEP. The national assessment tests a representative sample of 4th, 8th, and 12th graders in every state, and it reports the percentage of students who score at the basic, proficient, and advanced levels.

Last week, a research group released a study suggesting that states may have lowered their definitions of proficiency since NCLB was enacted in 2002.

In a study comparing state test scores with NAEP results, the research group Policy Analysis for California Education found a widening gap between students rated as proficient on the national assessment and those at the same level on state tests. Of the 12 states studied, that gap grew larger over the past five years in 10 states, according to the study released last week by PACE, which is based at the University of California, Berkeley.

Proficiency Gap

In 2005, most states reported higher percentages of students at proficiency on their tests than on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 4th grade reading.


Notes: If state test results were not available for grade 4, the EPE Research Center used test results from grade 3 or grade 5.
No results are reported for New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont because these states did not test reading in grades 3-5.

SOURCE: EPE Research Center

The gap between NAEP and state-test proficiency levels averaged 41 percentage points in the 47 states that gave 4th grade reading tests in 2005, according to an analysis by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center. The difference was 71 percentage points in Mississippi, and 61 points in both Georgia and Alabama.

Advocates of national academic standards argue that because of such disparities, Congress should set up a process that would establish national standards and tests that states would be able to adopt, knowing that they met a national definition of proficiency.

“The time has come to think beyond this tradition of state dominion … and come up with some national standards and a national assessment,” said Lindsay Clare Matsumura, an assistant professor of education at the University of Pittsburgh.

The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a Washington think tank, and the Aspen Institute’s Commission on No Child Left Behind propose using NAEP test questions and definitions of proficiency as the basis for any national standards and tests.

“Almost everyone recognizes that NAEP captures what children should be proficient in or at least have a basic understanding of,” said Roy E. Barnes, a Democratic former governor of Georgia and a co-chairman of the bipartisan Aspen Institute commission, which issued extensive recommendations for reauthorizing the federal education law in February.

NAEP’s Flaws

The Aspen Institute panel suggests that national standards and tests be designed around NAEP’s achievement levels. Those standards and tests would be models that states could adopt for accountability purposes under the NCLB law. If states chose to keep their own standards and tests, they would have to submit them to an independent national panel that would compare their rigor with that of NAEP.

In Congress, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., has introduced a bill that would establish national standards in mathematics and science based on NAEP. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., has a separate proposal that would require states to compare their own standards against the NAEP’s standards. Sen. Kennedy is the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, and Sen. Dodd is a senior member of the panel.

Most testing experts and researchers say that NAEP shouldn’t be used to create a universal definition of proficiency.

NAEP “wasn’t designed for the purpose we want now, which is accountability,” said James W. Pellegrino, a professor of cognitive psychology and education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “What we want to do is establish what we consider proficiency to be.”

Overall, NAEP standards appear to be ambitious. In the 2005 exam given to 4th graders, for example, 31 percent ranked as proficient or above in reading, and 36 percent scored at that level in mathematics.

Given how students perform on NAEP, other researchers say that the national assessment would produce an overly ambitious definition of proficiency if it were used as the basis for national standards or tests.

In a paper last fall, Richard Rothstein, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington-based research organization, estimated that students in countries that score highest on international assessments don’t ensure all their students meet NAEP’s proficiency levels.

In Singapore, 25 percent of 8th graders would not have ranked as proficient under NAEP’s standards, according to Mr. Rothstein’s analysis of the 2003 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. Singapore was the highest-scoring country on the TIMMS test.

NAEP scores also contradict other assessments’ results, Mr. Rothstein said.

In 2000, NAEP reported that 1.5 percent of high school seniors scored at its advanced level in math. By comparison, 2.7 percent of the members of that year’s high school graduating classes earned college credit for calculus based on their performance on Advanced Placement exams.

But supporters of NAEP say that its proficiency levels are an appropriate goal for all students.

“That sounds like an excuse for low expectations,” said Mr. Barnes, the former Georgia governor. “It may be unpleasant [to set a high standard], but it’s necessary.”

Real-World Standards

Other advocates of a different conception of proficiency have called for defining proficiency based on whether students are prepared for either college or the workforce.

Under such proposals, states would define what it means for a student to be ready for college or a career by the end of high school. From there, the states would work to set definitions for proficiency for each grade level leading up to high school to make sure students were on track to meet the high school standards. State officials would set their own goals, working with business leaders and higher education officials.

“The goal ought to be that young people should graduate high school ready for college or the workplace,” said Sandy Kress, a former White House adviser to President Bush on the NCLB law and a lobbyist based in Austin, Texas. Mr. Kress represents the Business Coalition for Student Achievement, a group made up of national business groups and corporate executives that is calling for standards linked to college and workplace readiness.

See Also

Read the related story,

The Education Trust, meanwhile, in a series of recommendations for the reauthorization of the NCLB law it made last week, proposed amending the law’s goal for student achievement by linking it to new, more challenging standards based on skills needed to succeed after high school.

Under the plan, states would set a goal that at least 95 percent of students meet their states’ definition of “basic” under the 11th grade standards, and that at least 80 percent of students rate as “proficient” at that grade level.

Although the terminology would change, the requirement that the standards be linked to college and the workplace would make such standards more rigorous than they are now, said Kati Haycock, the president of the Education Trust, a Washington-based research and advocacy group that is a staunch supporter of the federal law’s efforts to raise the achievement of disadvantaged students.

“We’re asking most states to set higher standards for basic than they have now for proficient,” Ms. Haycock said in a conference call with reporters last week.

Whether or not states’ standards are modeled after NAEP’s standards, many researchers argue that the federal government should abandon the goal of universal proficiency.

The current goal of getting all students to the same place has some “perverse incentives,” Ms. Hamilton of the RAND Corp. said. Schools are focusing on students who are close to meeting the proficiency goals, she said, and slighting those who are achieving well above or well below the standard.

Instead, accountability systems should track the overall growth in achievement and whether that growth exceeds what can reasonably be expected over the course of a year, Ms. Hamilton said.

“It’s not something that’s easy to explain to the public,” she said. “But it’s a way to look at test scores along the whole distribution of performance rather than whether or not everyone is proficient.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 18, 2007 edition of Education Week as Not All Agree on Meaning of NCLB Proficiency

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