Prior to Common-Core Tests, Some States Raised the Bar for ‘Proficiency’

By Liana Loewus — July 09, 2015 4 min read
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Over the years, multiple studies have shown that states have set wildly different proficiency standards for their math and reading standardized tests—meaning that a student might be labeled passing in one state and well below par in another for the same performance.

A new report by the National Center for Education Statistics—the fifth such report since 2003—found that the pattern continued for the 2013 round of test-taking. States’ proficiency standards for 4th and 8th grade math and reading tests varied greatly that year when compared to a common yardstick—the National Assessment of Educational Progress. (NAEP, also known as “the nation’s report card,” is administered to a nationally representative sample of 4th and 8th graders in reading and math every other year.)

And while much of this is imminently changing now that states have moved to tests aligned to the Common Core State Standards, which will have different proficiency standards, the report offers some evidence that states have been steadily moving toward higher expectations. Such a move could serve to set the stage for 2015 state test scores, which are likely to be lower in most states using common-core tests.

Over a four-year period, the report indicates, many states pushed their proficiency standards closer to NAEP’s. While no state had 4th grade reading standards at the NAEP proficient level in 2009, 15 states had 4th grade reading standards at the NAEP basic level. By 2013, that number went up to 23. And two more states rivaled NAEP’s proficient level.

For 8th grade reading, the number of states at or above NAEP’s basic level went from 35 in 2009 to 41 in 2013.

For 4th grade math, the number of states with proficiency standards at or above the NAEP basic level increased from 44 in 2009 to 47 in 2013. Forty-one states had standards above the NAEP basic level for 8th grade math in 2013, up from 39 in 2009.

However, Gary Phillips, a vice president and institute fellow at the American Institutes for Research (and former acting commissioner of NCES), explained Wednesday in a media call about the release that the standards still varied greatly— by up to three or four grade levels. “The rigor of the grade 4 [proficiency] standards in the highest achieving states may be comparable to the rigor of the 8th grade standards in the lowest achieving states,” he said.

New York Meets NAEP

Just one state had proficiency standards in all measured grade levels and subjects that rivaled the NAEP standards: New York. This represented quite a change for the state, which had standards that measured well below the NAEP standards in years prior. Some experts point out that New York is one of a small group of states that had already moved to a common-core-aligned test by 2013—upping its learning goals and, perhaps consequently, its expectations for test scores.

Several other states had set cut scores in 2013 that were comparable to NAEP in at least one subject area, the report shows. For 4th grade reading, Wisconsin’s proficiency standard was in the NAEP proficient range. Just two years prior, the Wisconsin standard was equal to the below basic level on NAEP.

In 8th grade math, North Carolina and Texas had cut scores in 2013 that were in the NAEP proficient range—a big jump for both states from two years earlier. Texas reached the NAEP proficient range in 4th grade math as well, which was also an increase.

Three states consistently had some of the lowest standards compared to NAEP: Alabama, Georgia, and Idaho.

In fact, Georgia’s cut scores for 4th grade reading went down, from the NAEP equivalent of 180 in 2009 to the NAEP equivalent of 167 in 2013.

In an interview, Chris Minnich, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, pointed out that Kentucky, an early adopter of the Common Core State Standards and the first state to move to common-core-aligned tests, made a lot of progress on increasing its cut scores. In 2013, the state had higher standards than most other states in all subjects and grade levels.

“States that were early implementers of higher standards are showing on this report to be delivering on those higher standards,” he said. “It’s clear that states that are paying attention to this are understanding they needed to raise their bar for kids.” (It’s worth noting that standards here refers to both learning standards, i.e., the common core, and the standard for attaining proficiency based on a test.)

But Texas, a state that never adopted the common core, also increased its proficiency standards and is now among the states with the highest benchmarks for proficiency—indicating that forces other than the common core may be at play.

‘A Straight Line’

All of this is changing, though. In 2015, about half of states gave up their previous standardized tests and administered tests aligned to the common core that were created by either the PARCC or Smarter Balanced assessment consortium. Both PARCC and Smarter Balanced have said they aimed to set NAEP-like cut scores. (The remaining states have chosen other tests, most of which will still be aligned to the common core.)

So what does that mean for what this same NCES study will show in its next iteration? “We should see a straight line,” said Minnich. “But that’s wishful thinking.”

Perhaps more realistically, Louis Fabrizio, the data, research, and federal policy director for the North Carolina education department (who also serves on the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for NAEP), said during the media call, “I think those differences in standards will become lower over time.”

Above all, though, it’s important to remember that the proficiency standards indicate little about student achievement. Raising the bar for test scores is “a first step,” said Minnich. “Unless we get students to start achieving to these levels, it doesn’t matter what the cutpoints are.”

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