Report Raises Questions about Standards of “Race to the Top” Winners

Education Next News
For Immediate Release

Naush Boghossian (818) 209-2787 Larson Communications
Carlos Lastra-Anadón (617) 955-7388 Harvard University
Antonio Wendland (617) 495-7976 Harvard University

Cambridge, MA — As President Barack Obama urges states to raise academic standards and not “lowball” student expectations, an Education Next report by researchers Paul E. Peterson and Carlos Xabel Lastra-Anadón shows that standards in most states remain far below those of the proficiency standard set by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Meanwhile, the findings conclude that the U.S. Department of Education rewarded two states that have historically implemented among the lowest standards in the country—Tennessee and Delaware—with highly competitive Race to the Top (RttT) funds.

By comparing the percentage proficient according to the 2009 NAEP with that reported by each state according to its own assessment, the researchers are able to ascertain empirically the rigor of each state’s standards in reading and math in 4th and 8th grades. Tennessee, with the lowest standards among all states, received a grade of ‘F’, and Delaware came in 36th with a C-. Five states—Hawaii, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Mexico and Washington—received an ‘A’ An ‘F’ was given to Alabama and Nebraska as well as to Tennessee. The grade given each state is presented in the attached table.

The report, which will be published in the fall issue of Education Next but which can be seen online now at, shows that only a very few states have changed their standards significantly since they first set them. Colorado raised its standards from a ‘D’ to a ‘B-’ between 2003 and 2009, while South Carolina let its standards fall from ‘A’ level to a ‘C-’, and Arizona standards fell from a ‘B-’ to a ‘D’. But changes in most states have been marginal. Tennessee has always received an ‘F’, while Delaware’s standards have fallen from a ‘C’ in 2003 to a ‘C-’ in 2005 and subsequently.

“Our findings raise questions about whether RttT places too much emphasis on promises and not enough on past performance,” Peterson said. “But, the proof will be in the pudding. If Tennessee and Delaware, now that they have been given RttT money, finally begin to raise their standards, they will win over those of us who are critical of the process.”

In more encouraging findings, the analysis reveals that despite widespread perceptions that state standards are falling nationwide, they are rising noticeably in reading. Math continues to suffer, however, with declining standards.

The report measures a state’s performance on the NAEP, specifically the percentage of students who are deemed proficient by these standards, and compares them with the percentage of students who are deemed proficient by each particular state’s adopted standards. States that have a similar percentage of students proficient on their own tests as on the NAEP test for their state were given an ‘A’, because they had set their standards close to the “world class” level set by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. States whose students’ scores showed them to be substantially less proficient on NAEP tests as compared to their own state tests were given lower grades, the exact grade depending on how much lower their standards were than the world-class NAEP standard.

Peterson and Lastra-Anadón’s analysis supports Obama’s criticism that standards are too low in most states. Twenty-seven states earned a ‘C’, eight were given a ‘D’, and three an ‘F’.

According to Lastra-Anadón, “setting high standards for proficiency is the first step in the journey toward improving the learning of a high percentage of students. NAEP says that less than one-third of students are proficient in reading and a similar proportion in math nationwide and concealing this fact by states setting standards too low does not help students or the nation.”

Paul E. Peterson is the director of Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance, where Carlos Xabel Lastra-Anadón is a Harvard Research Fellow.

About Education Next
Education Next
is a scholarly journal published by the Hoover Institution and online by Harvard University, that is committed to looking at hard facts about school reform. Other sponsoring institutions are the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. The journal’s website is

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College