Federal

States Confront Definition of ‘Proficient’ as They Set the Bar for Lots of New Tests

By Lynn Olson — December 13, 2005 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

As states add reading and math exams in previously untested grades to comply with the No Child Left Behind Act, they will have to determine the level of performance considered “proficient.”

Untitled
UPDATE ON NCLB
An Education Week Special Pullout Section: A Progress Report on the No Child Left Behind Act
Room to Maneuver
:: Table: School Ratings and Student Performance [PDF]
Political Shifts Cloud Outlook for Renewal of Federal Education Law
Actual Measure of ‘Highly Qualified’ Teachers Just Beginning to Come to Light Across Nation
:: Table: Where Are the ‘Highly Qualified’ Teachers? [PDF]
States Confront Definition of ‘Proficient’ as They Set the Bar for Lots of New Test

In particular, states must figure out how to make their achievement standards on the new tests mesh with those in the grades already being tested, so that the progression of growth expectations across grade levels is smooth. Otherwise, 4th graders who are rated proficient in mathematics one year may suddenly score below that level the next simply because the standard, or cut point, has shifted.

“I think it’s causing some difficulties,” Robert L. Linn, a professor of education emeritus at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said of state efforts to set performance standards.

A survey conducted this fall by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center found that at least 11 states set new achievement levels in reading/language arts in the 2004-05 school year. About nine states did so in mathematics.

Those numbers are expected to grow substantially this school year, as nearly half the states administer reading and math tests in more grades.

The federal law requires states to give tests in reading and math in grades 3-8 and at least once in high school, starting this school year.

The combination of new performance standards and tests will make it even harder to determine if schools are really improving, based on whether they have made adequate yearly progress under the federal law.

As states add performance standards or revise the scores students need to qualify as “proficient,” it may be unclear if the bar has been raised, lowered, or kept largely the same.

Comparisons Difficult

Figuring out the height of the bar is not easy, responses to the epe Research Center survey show.

Meeting Requirements

States are moving to meet the testing requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act. Almost all states will test students in reading and math in grades 3-8 and once in grades 10-12 in 2005-06. Slightly fewer than half of all states currently have standards-based science tests in each of three grade spans: 3-5, 6-9, and 10-12. The nearly 4-year-old federal law requires states to have such science tests in place by 2007-08.

BRIC ARCHIVE

*Click image to enlarge

Note: The District of Columbia is included in this analysis. Total state count = 51.

SOURCE: Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, 2005

In Arizona, for example, officials held a series of meetings last May to set new achievement levels in reading, math, and writing for their state’s tests in grades 3-8 and high school. State officials report that high school students now must answer a lower percentage of items correctly to meet the proficiency standard. But the tests also now contain more items, so students must show more knowledge to be rated proficient.

Arkansas also set new performance levels in 2005 for its reading and math exams. “On balance, the cut scores are generally comparable,” a state education department official reported, “although at one particular grade or another, the cut score may be somewhat higher or lower.

“It is difficult to make an exact comparison,” the Arkansas official continued, in response to the epe Research Center survey, “since the content standards being measured have been revised and since the design of the literacy portion of the examination has changed.” What states want to avoid, said Scott Marion, a vice president of the Center for Assessment, a Dover, N.H.-based group that works with states to improve their testing-and-accountability systems, are erratic swings in performance from grade to grade because of where they’ve set the bar.

Seeking Consistency

“If you have an assessment in grades 4, 8, and 11 and now you’re going to fill in the rest of the grades, do you go back and completely revisit all your performance standards, which some folks are doing,” Mr. Marion said, “or do you try and set new standards for the new tests and live with your old ones where they were?”

Some states, such as Arizona, have developed a single “vertical” scale that summarizes student achievement across grade levels, at least in grades 3-8.

Such scales, according to Robert W. Lissitz, a professor of education at the University of Maryland College Park, assume that tests at different grade levels focus on similar math or reading concepts even though they measure different content. Students are expected to improve on the scale each year as their math or reading skills increase.

But Mr. Lissitz and other assessment experts say that vertical scales are hard to construct and are based on questionable assumptions about how common the content really is across grades.

He and others advocate what they call “vertically articulated” or “vertically moderated” standards. Such methods rely on a combination of human judgment and statistical analyses. They consider both the content standards and test difficulty in each grade, along with data on how students actually perform, to set cutoff scores.

The assumption, said Mr. Marion of the Center for Assessment, is that if 50 percent of a state’s 3rd graders are proficient in mathematics, “and you don’t think 4th grade math is all that different, your best guess is 50 percent of the kids should be proficient in grade 4, too.”

“That’s not deterministic,” he said. “It allows you to set a starting point.”

‘A Purposeful Act’

In Michigan, for example, curriculum standards were revised in 2004, based on the nclb testing requirements, so that grade-level expectations are now more rigorous and specific. The state not only added new tests in grades 3, 5, 6, 7, and 8, but also shifted from a spring to a fall testing date.

The state plans to set performance standards and cutoff scores for the new tests in late December and early January. As one step in that process, said Ed Roeber, the state’s testing director, committees will review books in which test items are arranged in order of difficulty and determine where to set the proficiency bar.

Those books also will show where that bar would be placed to maintain a level of proficiency consistent with that in adjacent grades. What the committees decide from there is really unconstrained, Mr. Roeber said.

“Even at the grades where we’ve had tests, the committees could set standards higher or lower,” he said. “We don’t want them to do it by accident; we want it to be a purposeful act.”

For now, said Mr. Lissitz, “nobody has a real solid answer” on the best method for making such judgments.

“It’s a hard thing, because the models that we have are being developed as we speak,” he said. “Right now, we have answers, but they’re not as satisfactory as they will be in a couple of years.”

Events

Recruitment & Retention Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Chronic Teacher Shortage: Where Do We Go From Here?  
Join Peter DeWitt, Michael Fullan, and guests for expert insights into finding solutions for the teacher shortage.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Reading & Literacy Webinar
The Science of Reading: Tools to Build Reading Proficiency
The Science of Reading has taken education by storm. Learn how Dr. Miranda Blount transformed literacy instruction in her state.
Content provided by hand2mind
Student Achievement K-12 Essentials Forum Tutoring Done Right: How to Get the Highest Impact for Learning Recovery
Join us as we highlight and discuss the evidence base for tutoring, best practices, and different ways to provide it at scale.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Federal Q&A Boosting 'Pathetically Low' Teacher Pay Is Top of Mind for Bernie Sanders
The progressive senator from Vermont spoke with Education Week as he prepares to chair the Senate's education committee.
6 min read
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., talks with reporters outside the West Wing of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., talks with reporters outside the West Wing of the White House in Washington, in late January.
Susan Walsh/AP
Federal What’s Behind the Push for a $60K Base Teacher Salary
When reintroduced in Congress, a bill to raise teacher salaries will include money to account for regional cost differences.
5 min read
Teachers from Seattle Public Schools picket outside Roosevelt High School on what was supposed to be the first day of classes, Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022, in Seattle. The first day of classes at Seattle Public Schools was cancelled and teachers are on strike over issues that include pay, mental health support, and staffing ratios for special education and multilingual students.
Teachers from Seattle Public Schools picket outside Roosevelt High School on what was supposed to be the first day of classes, Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022, in Seattle. The first day of classes at Seattle Public Schools was cancelled and teachers are on strike over issues that include pay, mental health support, and staffing ratios for special education and multilingual students.
Jason Redmond/AP
Federal Teachers Shouldn't Have to Drive Ubers on the Side, Education Secretary Says
In a speech on priorities for the year, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said teachers should be paid competitive salaries.
5 min read
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona delivers a speech during the “Raise the Bar: Lead the World” event in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 24, 2023.
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona delivers a speech during the “Raise the Bar: Lead the World” event in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 24, 2023.
Sam Mallon/Education Week
Federal A Chaotic Start to a New Congress: What Educators Need to Know
A new slate of lawmakers will have the chance to influence federal education policy in the 118th Congress.
4 min read
Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., talks on the House floor after the first vote for House Speaker when he did not receive enough votes to be elected during opening day of the 118th Congress at the U.S. Capitol, Tuesday, Jan 3, 2023, in Washington.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., talks on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives on Jan. 3 following the first round of voting for House Speaker. McCarthy fell short of enough votes to be elected speaker in three rounds of voting on opening day of the 118th Congress at the U.S. Capitol.
Andrew Harnik/AP