In response to the article on the disparity in state proficiency standards that Peter Kaplan and I published earlier this week, one reader, Scott McLeod, referred (in a comment) to an article arguing that that “proficiency” as defined by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) does not really mean proficiency. That article, by James Harvey, originally appeared on Valerie Strauss’ Answer Sheet blog.
Not to worry when states set much lower and widely diverse proficiency standards, McLeod implies. After all, as James Harvey argues in his article, NAEP didn’t mean “proficiency” when it used that word. NAEP was simply being “aspirational,” much like the mercenary preacher at the revival meeting who calls for a transformation of the heart and soul when he expects only a contribution to the collection plate.
Citing a study by Gary Phillips, Harvey says that most students around the world cannot reach the NAEP proficiency standard. But for the most part, Phillips compares the United States with countries in the developing world, not with peers at similar levels of economic and social development.
It is true that students in the United States show quite well when they are compared to the students of Brazil, Albania, Jordan, Peru, Columbia, Panama, Tunisia, Indonesia and Kyrgyzstan. (Those were the lowest-performing of the countries in the world who participated in the international testing administered by the Program on International Assessment (PISA), the official assessment system of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development.)
But comparisons with U. S. peers reveal a quite different story. As Eric Hanushek, Ludger Woessmann and I show in our book Endangering Prosperity: A Global View of the American School (publication date: September 3, 2013), the United States, with 32 percent of its students proficient in mathematics, comes in Number 32 among political jurisdictions that take the PISA test. Here are just some of the countries that have much higher math proficiency rates than the meager 32 percent garnered by the United States: Singapore (63%), Korea (62%), Finland (56%), Switzerland (53%), Canada (50%), New Zealand (47%), Germany (45%), and Australia (44%)).
Too many people ignore these international comparisons and set low expectations for U.S. students and their schools. Unfortunately, even committees of the National Academy of Education (of which I am a member) and the National Research Center, a bureaucratic arm of the National Academy of Sciences, downplay the problematic state of American education.
But whatever one thinks of NAEP’s definition of proficiency, nothing in Harvey’s article begins to touch on the central point of our essay: U.S. states, by committing themselves to implement Common Core State Standards, have promised to set standards benchmarked at international levels, while in fact they have put into place actual standards at diverse—and embarrassingly low—proficiency levels. If Apple were as inaccurate in its description of the iPad, it would be hauled before a federal judge for false advertising.
-Paul E. Peterson