College & Workforce Readiness

What Does ‘Proficient’ on the NAEP Test Really Mean?

By Liana Loewus — June 15, 2016 4 min read
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As we’ve reported, 4th, 8th, and 12th grade students across the country showed declines in math on the most recent administration of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. For 8th grade students, average reading scores also went down.

The results looked particularly bad for 4th and 8th graders, whose scores had been flat or on the rise for about two decades before 2015. Predictably, the scores on the federally funded test have caused some handwringing.

A recent Twitter spat illustrates that, in addition to concern about the NAEP scores, there’s also some continual confusion about them.

In mid-May, Campbell Brown, a former CNN anchor and now the editor-in-chief of the education news site The 74, stated in a video message to the next president that “2 out of 3 8th graders in this country cannot read or do math at grade level.”

That assertion didn’t go unnoticed by Tom Loveless, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, who studies NAEP. He asked Campbell on Twitter where she got that figure, and she responded that it was from NAEP.

A Tougher Goal

One of the ways NAEP reports scores is by the percentage of students who scored at or above proficient. According to the 2015 NAEP results, 33 percent of 8th grade students scored at or above proficient in math, and 34 percent scored the same in reading.

But Loveless responded that “proficient” and “grade level” are not the same.

Here’s how the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers NAEP, defines proficient: “Students reaching this level have demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter, including subject-matter knowledge, application of such knowledge to real world situations, and analytical skills appropriate to the subject matter.”

“Challenging subject matter” is the key term here, according to Loveless. Proficiency is a much tougher goal than being on grade level.

However, Campbell notes that the definition for “basic” performance, or the level below proficient, isn’t much help in clarifying the matter. NCES says that basic means “partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at each grade.” (See how the word proficient appears in that definition?)

The National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for the NAEP, includes a clearer description of how proficient and grade level relate on its “myths and facts” page, as Loveless points out in a new blog post. NAGB says:

Even so, proficient can be difficult to explain in plain terms. In 2014, Cornelia Orr, the executive director of NAGB, said in a media call that proficient means students “have had success with the challenging content on that grade level” (and I’ve been using similar wording to describe it in my reporting since). In a recent conversation, Loveless said the grade-level portion of that statement should be left out. “When the unschooled listener or reader hears that, they think it means on grade level,” he said.

Common-Core Tests and NAEP

So what, if anything, do these semantic differences mean for teachers and students? Some say they mean quite a lot.

As states have moved to the Common Core State Standards and associated tests, many have attempted to set their own proficiency levels closer to NAEP’s. In other words, some states have raised their expectations for students, and the percentage of students labeled proficient has gone down. (The standards themselves are also harder to master, most people agree, so that likely also contributes to drops in pass rates.)

In a piece published on the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog, Carol Burris, a New York principal turned activist, argues that setting expectations too high can force teachers to go too fast. “If you set an unreasonable cut score on state tests and pressure teachers and kids to meet it, it can work against student learning, especially for students who struggle,” she writes. “Sizeable numbers of kids will learn less than they might if the instructional pace and content were developmentally appropriate and well sequenced.”

In his blog, Loveless says this can hurt students in other ways as well. “If high school students are required to meet NAEP proficient to graduate from high school, large numbers will fail,” he writes. “If middle and elementary school students are forced to repeat grades because they fall short of a standard anchored to NAEP proficient, vast numbers will repeat grades.”

On the flip side, proponents of raising expectations for proficiency saying doing so can propel student learning, and ensure teachers are working hard to help all students reach the high bar.

Brown did offer a response to the Washington Post about her grade-level/proficiency comparison.

“If I were trying to be completely and utterly precise then I would have specified ‘grade-level proficiency’, instead of ‘grade level’ in the context of NAEP scores,” she wrote in an email. “But any reasonable person or parent can rightly assume that if their child is not reading at grade level, then their child is not proficient. Any reasonable person or parent knows exactly what I meant in that statement.”

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