States Revise the Meaning Of ‘Proficient’

By David J. Hoff — October 09, 2002 8 min read
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A number of states appear to be easing their standards for what it means to be “proficient” in reading and math because of pressures to comply with a new federal law requiring states to make sure all students are proficient on state tests in those subjects within 12 years.

In Louisiana, for instance, students will be considered proficient for purposes of the federal law when they score at the “basic” achievement level on their state’s assessment. Connecticut schoolchildren will be deemed proficient even if they fall shy of the state’s performance goals in reading and mathematics. And Colorado students who score in the “partially proficient” level on their state test will be judged proficient.

Such semantic changes will be common, testing experts predict, as states that set ambitious goals for student performance are now required under the federal law to identify schools as failing if students don’t meet those expectations.

But while Colorado, Connecticut, and Louisiana may appear to be lowering the bar for student performance, their defenders say the states are simply being realistic about setting goals they can meet under the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001, which requires that all students be proficient in reading and math by the end of the 2013-14 school year.

“I don’t think they’re gaming the system,” said Wayne Martin, the director of the state education assessment center for the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers. “If you’ve got a low standard to begin with, to be lowering it now—that’s a different ballgame. I don’t know if anybody’s playing that game right now.”

Some observers, though, say the changes in those three states show that it is likely other states will also take advantage of the latitude the law has given them to define for themselves what constitutes proficiency. Congress didn’t define the term and didn’t give the U.S. Department of Education any enforcement powers over states that might be perceived as watering down their standards to meet the new requirements.

“They’re going to be all over the map—they’re going to put their proficiency standard where they feel they can do it and get away with it,” said Phyllis P. McClure, a Washington-based independent education consultant who is tracking the effects of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Walking a Tightrope

The federal law emphasizes improving the achievement of the lowest-performing students so that all students will become proficient in reading and math. To begin to track that goal, states are required to be testing students in reading and math by the end of the 2005-06 school year.

In the meantime, states must decide how to define proficiency as they prepare the applications that explain how they will comply with the law, signed by President Bush last January, which reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The debates—along with state budget constraints—have put state testing and accountability systems in flux. (“Budget Woes Force States to Scale Back Testing Programs,” this issue.)

The difficulty for states will be adjusting their accountability systems to meet the demands of the new federal law. Many states set demanding standards and designed accountability systems that measured schools’ success in improving the performance of students across the spectrum.

Currently, many states are still mulling how they will define “proficient"—an adjective that means “highly competent; skilled; adept,” according to Webster’s New World College Dictionary. Even before the advent of the new federal mandate, states showed wide variation in the rigor of their achievement levels. (“A ‘Proficient’ Score Depends on Geography,” Feb. 20, 2002.)

All states must submit their definitions in applications to the federal Education Department in January. How states decide to define proficiency carries enormous consequences.

Any state with an ambitious definition will have to label “the vast majority” of their schools as needing improvement, said Robert L. Linn, a professor of education at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a co-director of the Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing, a federally financed project.

Such states run the risk of failing to reach the law’s goal of having all their students at the proficient level in reading and math by the end of the 2013-14 school year.

But changing their definitions of proficient also has downsides, state officials say.

In California, where about a third of students scored at or above proficient on state reading tests, lowering the definition would disrupt the state accountability system, which rewards schools for moving students up from one achievement level to the next. If proficiency is set too low and becomes the only goal for schools to reach, they may not try to push average students to higher levels, said Paul Warren, the deputy superintendent for accountability in the state department of education.

“We don’t want to give up what we have,” Mr. Warren said. “We have a lot of public acceptance, and schools perceive it as fair.”

Missouri is in a similar situation, according to James Morris, a spokesman for its education department.

“We’ve got a tightrope to walk to satisfy the federal mandate without appearing to water down our expectations,” Mr. Morris said.

The Missouri state board of education is reluctant to change the definition because of “the degree of confusion that it would cause for parents and political leaders, not to mention teachers and school officials,” he said.

But he pointed out that the state risks categorizing “a very large number of schools as failing” if it keeps its current definition.

‘Basic’ Equals Proficient

When Louisiana established its accountability system in 1999, it set as a goal that all students would reach the “basic” achievement level by 2009, and that all students would score at the proficient mark 10 years after that. The state purposely set its achievement levels to match the high standards of the federally sponsored National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, said Rodney R. Watson, the state’s assistant superintendent for student and school performance.

The state decided to make the basic level its goal under the No Child Left Behind Act, he said, because it was aligned with the state’s target for 2009 and still represents solid academic achievement.

On last spring’s state tests, 17 percent of Louisiana 8th graders scored at either the proficient or “advanced” level on an English/language arts test, while 31 percent rated in the basic category. In mathematics, 1 percent of 8th graders were advanced, 4 percent were proficient, and 37 percent were basic. By comparison, the state’s 7th and 9th graders rated just below the national average on the composite score of the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills.

While the state decided that its basic achievement level would be good enough for proficiency under the federal law, it decided against changing the name of the achievement level.

“It would have looked like we were dumbing down the standards,” Mr. Watson said.

Instead, the state board of education changed the name of the state’s proficient category to “mastery.”

Colorado also decided that its state definition of proficient went beyond what is required under the federal law, so it will use its “partially proficient” achievement level to determine its goal for proficiency under the federal law.

William J. Maloney

Colorado’s expectation for partially proficient is “well above the national standard,” insisted William J. Moloney, the state commissioner of education. “It’s a reasonable, demanding standard, but not an impossible one.”

But, unlike Louisiana, Colorado decided against changing the terminology of the achievement levels. “We didn’t for the very simple reason that we would have been throwing away five years of work,” Mr. Moloney said.

In Connecticut, however, the state will create a new category of student performance, said Thomas W. Murphy, a state education department spokesman.

The state’s highest achievement level is now called the “goal” for all students. The category is “not advanced, not proficient, but somewhere in between,” Mr. Murphy said.

Connecticut is one of the top-performing states on NAEP, but 26 percent of its students fail to reach the state goal in reading, writing, or math—the subjects tested on the Connecticut Mastery Test.

Wide Variations

While some states are redefining achievement levels, New York officials say they will recommend to the state board of regents that it set a high mark for proficiency under the federal law.

The state has four levels of performance identified by numbers—1 is the lowest; 4 is the highest. In math, for example, 48 percent of 8th graders scored at level 3 or 4 this year, and 7 percent were at the lowest level.

A proposal to define level 3 as proficient is the subject of debate in public hearings and is scheduled to be considered by the state board by December.

If the state were to define level 2 as proficient, it would have few schools labeled as failing in the short term, according to James A. Kadamus, the deputy commissioner for elementary, middle, secondary, and continuing education.

But if New York used that benchmark in the long term, he said, the state would struggle to demonstrate student progress because it would be trying to raise the performance of students with severe disabilities and developmental delays. “You’re down to your hardest core, at-risk population,” Mr. Kadamus said.

Identifying level 3 as proficient, however, “gives districts incentive to work on both ends of the spectrum,” he said.

As states make their final decisions about how to define proficiency, testing experts predict a wide variation in the quality of student work expected in the states.

Inevitably, the final arbiter of states’ definitions, they say, will be NAEP. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, all states taking money under the federal Title I program for disadvantaged students will be required to take part in the national assessment’s reading and math exams starting in 2003.

While the results won’t play an official role in evaluating states’ definitions of proficiency, researchers and watchdogs will be comparing state rankings on their own tests with those of NAEP to see which states have set high goals and which ones haven’t.

“It will be almost impossible to get a national picture from the state assessments,” Mr. Linn of the University of Colorado said. “This is where NAEP will come in. That’s what people will have to rely on.”


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