Saturday, September 3, 2011

Proficient in One State, Not in Another?: Disparities in Academic Standards

According to the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation enacted in 2002, all students are required to be proficient in both math and reading by 2014. While NCLB calls for states to develop their own standardized tests and to have accountability systems in place, it did not specifically address how much and what students should know at the end of each grade (Peterson & Hess, 2005). States are not only allowed to determine their own standards, but also decide what "proficiency" means on their yearly assessments. This has led to disparities in standards across the United States such that some states have set demanding benchmarks for proficiency while others have much lower standards in place. As a result, the states with the highest expectations often have the most schools said to be in need of improvement, not necessarily because their students are being poorly educated, but because of where the bar for proficiency status has been set (Peterson & Hess, 2005). More importantly, as academic standards, assessments and curriculum vary, it is nearly impossible to determine how student achievement compares across state lines  (Peterson & Hess, 2008). 

So which states have the most (and least) rigorous academic standards? Massachusetts and Missouri are two states that have consistently been considered to have the best academic standards. How do we know this? In order to determine the strength of each state's proficiency rating, researchers have compared proficiency rate on state tests to the state's proficiency rate on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The NAEP is the "largest nationally representative and continuing assessment of what America's students know and can do in various subjects (see here)." Assessments are given in mathematics, reading and U.S. history among other subjects and are administered uniformly across the U.S. using the same test booklets. Because of the uniformity in testing materials, results on the NAEP serve as a common metric for all states. Furthermore, the NAEP's proficiency standard was determined through a well established technical process (Peterson & Hess, 2008). When the NAEP is used as an assessment tool, its definition of proficiency is similar to standards used by the designers of international tests of achievement and carries approximately the same meaning as the 'proficient' rating used in Europe and Asia (Peterson & Hess, 2008). Thus, comparing the percentage of students achieving proficiency on state tests with the percentage of students achieving proficiency on the NAEP indicates how demanding each state's standards are (Peterson & Hess, 2005). For example, if a state has the same percentage of students achieving proficiency on both its own state tests and the NAEP, then it would be given an A for the strength of its standards. Conversely, if a state has a high number of students reach proficiency on its state test but a low number on the NAEP, it would be given an F for its failure to establish high, world-class standards for its students (Peterson & Hess, 2005). It should be noted that the strength of the proficiency standards are being compared and graded, not the actual proficiency rates; a state could have only a 25% proficiency rate on both state tests and the NAEP, but receive an A due to the equivalency in achievement rates even though these numbers are exceedingly low. 

How do individual states' own proficiency rates compare to proficiency rates on the NAEP? As was previously mentioned Massachusetts and Missouri received A's for their strength in proficiency standards in 2003, 2005, 2007, and 2009. These states are considered to have established world class standards in math and reading (Peterson & Hess, 2008). On the most recent comparison in 2009, Washington, Hawaii and New Mexico, in addition to Massachusetts and Missouri, received A grades; states receiving a B grade include Colorado, Maine, Montana, and New Hampshire (Peterson & Lastra-Anadon, 2010). Among the states currently in the middle (receiving a C-range grade) are Nevada, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, South Dakota and Oregon while 11 states including Alabama, Arizona, Texas, Idaho, and Maryland received a D or an F (Peterson & Lastra-Anadon, 2010). A state that has consistently received an F is Tennessee; Tennessee declares most of its students proficient even when performance is substantially below NAEP standards (Peterson & Lastra-Anadon, 2010). In 2009, 90% of 4th grade students in Tennessee achieved proficiency in math while only 28% were proficient on the math portion of the NAEP (Peterson & Lastra-Anadon, 2010).  From this we see, proficiency rates vary depending on the state and the measure utilized. The average difference in proficiency rates between state tests and the NAEP was an astonishing 37 points (Peterson & Hess, 2008). There are regional differences as the Northeast tends to have the highest standards while the South and Midwest have the lowest with the West in between (Peterson & Hess, 2008).

An issue that has concerned both Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and President Barack Obama is the pressure some states may feel to lower state standards in order to comply with the 100% proficiency rate mandated by NCLB. Indeed, there has been a decline in standards observed between 2003 and 2009. Four states in particular (Alaska, California, New York and South Carolina) received grades in 2009 that were a full letter grade worse than they received in 2007; South Carolina went from an A in 2007 to a C- in 2009 (Peterson & Lastra-Anadon, 2010). Math standards nationally have also declined on both the 4th and 8th grade assessments (Peterson & Lastra-Anadon, 2010). On a positive note, while some states seem to be lowering their standards, eight states, including Mississippi and West Virginia, improved the overall rigor of their state assessments by a full letter grade or more since 2007. Seventeen states increased the rigor of their 4th grade reading tests by a full letter grade since 2007 while 17 states did the same for the 8th grade reading assessment (Peterson & Lastra-Anadon, 2010)

From this we see that students who under perform in one state may be considered proficient or even advanced in another state that has lower academic standards. Lynn, Massachusetts is currently considered an under performing district as 48% students are proficient or better in English while 40% of students are proficient or better in math; statewide 68% of Massachusetts students are proficient or better in English and 59% are proficient or better in math. If a student from Lynn who failed the MCAS moved to Tennessee, he or she may be proficient, or even advanced on the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP). More importantly, good schools in Massachusetts may be unduly targeted for restructuring or closure because standards here are so stringent while schools in another state that offer a poor education but have a high pass rate on state tests due to lowered standards would remain open. Peterson and Hess (2008) called for a clear and consistent definition of grade level proficiency in reading and math and I would agree. If no child is to be left behind, there needs to be clear guidelines regarding what children should know and when they should know it. If a child cannot read in Texas, he should not suddenly be deemed literate by crossing state lines. Anything less than high, achievable academic standards nationwide is a travesty.


All MCAS-related Data Taken From:

Peterson, P.E. and Hess, F.M. (2005). Johnny can read...assessing the rigor if state assessment systems. Education Next (, 52-53.

Peterson, P.E. and Hess, F.M. (2006). Keeping an eye on state standards: a race to the bottom? Education Next (

Peterson, P.E. and Hess, F.M. (2008). Few states set world-class standards: In fact most render the notion of proficiency meaningless. Education Next (, 70-73.

Peterson, P.E. and Lastra-Anadon, C.X. (2010). State standards rise in reading, fall in math. Education Next (

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