State Proficiency Standards by the Numbers

Do you want to know how your state’s proficiency standards in reading and math compare to those in other states?  That information is available today on this website.  Readers have responded to a recent article, “State Standards Rising in Reading but Not Math,” written by Carlos Xabel Lastra-Anadón and myself, asking us to  identify precisely just how high or low each state’s standards have been set. In the article itself, we give each state’s proficiency standards a grade, from “A” to “F.” To calculate those grades, we computed the dif­ference between the percentage of students who were proficient on the NAEP in each state and the percentage of students reported to be proficient on the state’s own tests for the same year.

Proficiency standards are determined by the difficulty of the tests given to students and the number of questions they must answer correctly in order to obtain the score deemed proficient by the state. They are thus somewhat different from the common core standards under debate in Washington, D. C. these days.  Those standards refer to the curricular material that is to be covered in each grade at school.  Proficiency standards establish what a student is expected to have learned.  In my view, the hardly debated proficiency standards are vastly more important than the curricular or core academic standards about which the policy wonks and politicians talk endlessly.

But whatever you think about that issue, it is absolutely clear that states vary widely in the proficiency standards they set, i. e., the amount they expect a student to know before they deem the student proficient in that subject at a particular grade level.

In our recent study, we took special note of the fact that Tennessee, the state with the lowest proficiency standards, was given an “F,” but still was one of only two states to win the first round of the Race to the Top (RttT) competition organized by the Obama Administration.  The other winner, Delaware, was given a “C-minus.”  We await with eagerness the results of round two of Race to the Top, due out this September, to see whether the judges have begun to take into account existing state proficiency standards.

To help out the RttT judges—and anyone else who wants to see where a particular state stands quite precisely–we are releasing today on this website the differences for each state between its proficiency standards and NAEP standards in 4th grade and 8th grade math and reading, as of 2009.  For instance, in Tennessee, 90.2 percent of 4th graders were judged by the state to be proficient in math in 2009, based on the state’s academic standards, tests, and cut scores. However, only 28.4 percent of the state’s 4th graders scored at the proficient level on the 2009 NAEP exam.  We also release that same information for three preceding time periods—2003, 2005 and 2007 so that readers can see whether a state has been dumbing down its standards, as time goes by.

The data behind our proficiency study are available here –check out your state.

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