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Reading & Literacy

States Are Setting Bar Higher for ‘Proficiency’

By Catherine Gewertz — February 09, 2016 4 min read
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States are raising their expectations for student “proficiency” on tests of math and English/language arts, and making their tests tougher to pass.

That’s the conclusion of two new studies released late last month. They found that states have been adopting more difficult academic standards—in many cases, the common core—and then choosing or designing assessments that are more challenging as well. States are setting cut scores on those tests that produce much lower rates of proficiency than did their previous tests.

One study was published Jan. 27 in the journal Education Next. The other was released Jan. 28 by Achieve and the Collaborative for Student Success, two groups that push for higher standards. Both reports mirror the trend reported by Education Week last fall, when it published its national database of states’ 2014-15 test scores alongside their previous year’s test scores. That database shows big drops in proficiency rates in many states as they adopted tests aligned to new academic standards.

The Education Next study found that since 2011, 45 states have raised the performance levels for proficiency. Thirty-six of the 45 did so within just the last two years.

The report is the seventh in a series that examines states’ proficiency rates over the past decade. The newest analysis, by researchers from Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance, compares states’ test scores from 2014-15 with the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, in grades 4 and 8. It assigns each state a letter grade to reflect how closely its proficiency rates mirror those on NAEP, which is widely considered the gold standard in academic assessment.

Twenty-four states earned A’s overall for closely reflecting NAEP’s definition of proficiency in 2015. In a 2011 version of the EdNext study, only three states earned A’s. In the 2005 version, only six states did. Eighteen states’ ratings jumped by two letter grades or more since 2013.

“In short,” writes researcher Paul E. Peterson, with co-authors Samuel Barrows and Thomas Gift, “standards have suddenly skyrocketed.” The trend is “a hopeful sign that proficiency standards have moved in the right direction. If student performance shifts upward in tandem, it will signal a long-awaited enhancement in the quality of American schools,” they write.

Iowa, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, and Virginia got particularly low marks—C’s and D’s in 4th and 8th grade reading and math—for continuing to produce high proficiency rates on their tests, in contrast to NAEP’s findings. Sixteen states got A’s in both subjects and at both grade levels.

Closing the ‘Honesty Gap’

The report by Achieve concluded that more than half the states have made their tests harder to pass, bringing proficiency rates more in line with NAEP. That means that proficiency rates in many states have dropped from the 70 percent and 80 percent ranges into the 20s and 30s.

For some activists, that’s a sign that education is being distorted by meaningless ways of gauging student learning. For others, the drop in proficiency rates paints a more honest picture of how well schools are serving students. Achieve is in that latter camp, and welcomed a narrowing of what it calls “the honesty gap” between what state tests have reported and what the NAEP shows.

The Achieve report is an update of its work last May, when it reported that, in more than half the states, the proportion of students scoring proficient on 2013-14 state tests was 30 points higher than it was for the 2013 NAEP. The new report compares proficiency rates on state tests in 2014-15 to those on the fall 2015 NAEP in 4th grade reading and 8th grade math.

Its study found that 26 states narrowed those gaps by 10 percentage points or more in either 4th grade reading or 8th grade math. Sixteen states erased, or nearly erased, the gaps between their own proficiency rates and those on NAEP in one or both subjects by narrowing the gaps to 5 percentage points or less.

Three states—Massachusetts, New York, and Utah—earned praise for having NAEP-like expectations in both subjects. New York’s expectations are even higher than NAEP’s: Proficiency rates on its 4th grade reading and 8th grade math tests are 3 percentage points to 10 percentage points lower than those rates on the NAEP, Achieve reports.

The report calls out four states with particularly big gaps between their definition of proficiency and the NAEP’s: Texas, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Virginia. Texas was the biggest offender, with gaps of 40-plus points between its own proficiency rates and those on the NAEP. (Texas officials did not return a call seeking comment by deadline.) Since 2011-12, Texas has been planning to phase in higher cut scores on its state tests, but delayed that move until 2015-16.

Georgia is a state that has drawn praise for raising its proficiency standards. In 2014-15, it switched to tests that required students to explain their thinking rather than answer only multiple-choice questions. Proficiency rates dropped from the 90s into the 30s and 40s, close to the state’s NAEP proficiency rates.

“I used to refer to Georgia as the land of proficiency: Come to Georgia and you, too, will be proficient,” joked Melissa Fincher, Georgia’s assessment chief, referring to the old test’s high proficiency rates. “But really, we needed to make a change. It was time to recalibrate our expectations and be very thoughtful about what we wanted our students to achieve.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 10, 2016 edition of Education Week as ‘Proficiency’ Bars on State Tests Are Seen Heading Upward

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