Twenty States Increased Academic Proficiency Standards between 2011 and 2013

Paul E. Peterson:, (617) 495-7976, Harvard University
Ashley Inman:, (707) 332-1184, Education Next Communications Office

Twenty States Increased Academic Proficiency Standards between 2011 and 2013
For the first time since the passage of No Child Left Behind, state standards have risen; all states that show strong improvements have adopted Common Core

Cambridge MA. – Education reform efforts seem to be paying dividends across the United States.  New research by Harvard Kennedy School Professor Paul E. Peterson and Matthew Ackerman finds that 20 states strengthened their student proficiency standards between 2011 and 2013 while just eight states weakened them. And because all of the states showing strong improvements have adopted  Common Core State Standards (CCSS), the authors say there is a strong likelihood that Common Core induced this sudden improvement in the rigor of states’ standards. To date, 44 states and the District of Columbia have adopted CCSS, the result of an effort to establish a set of common expectations in reading and math that began in 2009. A key objective of the CCSS consortium was to raise states’ academic proficiency standards.

Peterson and Ackerman’s study is published by Education Next.

The authors use data from state tests and the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) to estimate changes to each state’s proficiency standards in reading and math in grades 4 and 8 by identifying the difference between the percentages of students the state identifies as proficient and the percentages of students identified as proficient by NAEP, an internationally benchmarked proficiency standard. The study’s grading system is designed to assess “the degree to which states are accurately informing parents how well students are doing on an internationally accepted scale,” or what the authors refer to as “truth in advertising.”

The authors’ findings for 2011-2013 include:

–   The average difference between NAEP and state proficiency levels decreased from 35 percentage points to 30 percentage points nationwide, which the authors point out is “the largest tightening of state standards in any two-year period since NCLB was first established.” By comparison, states’ average proficiency standards improved by only 2 percentage points between 2009 and 2011, largely due to high grades of two outlier states.

–   Nine states receive a grade of “A,” indicating that they have set a proficiency bar that is roughly comparable to that set by NAEP: Massachusetts, Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Utah, and Wisconsin. Massachusetts and Tennessee were the only states to receive “A” grades between 2009 and 2011.

–   Five states have set some standards that exceed those of NAEP: Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

–   Six states improved their standards by more than two letter grades: Kentucky, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Utah, Wisconsin, and Michigan.

–   Alabama, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, and Oklahoma earned the lowest grades for the rigor of their proficiency standards.

–   The six states not implementing CCSS for reading or math have all continued to set low proficiency standards: Virginia, C+; Nebraska, C; Indiana, C-; Texas, C-; Alaska, D+; and Oklahoma, D.

Despite all of the progress made between 2011 and 2013, the authors clarify that “there is more than enough room for growth, especially among the states that have yet to adopt CCSS.”

“That proficiency standards have for the first time begun to move in the right direction is a hopeful sign,” says Peterson. If both standards and student performance shift upward between 2013 and 2015, “it will signal a long-awaited enhancement in the quality of the American school.”

The article also features two interactive maps, one showing changes in proficiency standards state by state between 2011 and 2013, and the other showing the strength of state proficiency standards in 2013 state by state. See the maps at:

Education Next has been tracking state proficiency standards since 2006. The study is the sixth in a series of articles ranking the rigor of states’ proficiency standards. For earlier findings see EdFacts at

States Raise Proficiency Standards in Math and Reading: Commitments to Common Core may be driving the proficiency bar upward” by Paul E. Peterson and Matthew Ackerman is available now on and will appear in the Summer 2015 issue of Education Next.

About the Authors

Paul E. Peterson, editor-in-chief of Education Next, is professor of government and director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at the Harvard Kennedy School, where Matthew Ackerman is a research fellow.

About Education Next

Education Next is a scholarly journal published by the Hoover Institution that is committed to careful examination of evidence relating to school reform. Other sponsoring institutions are the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University, part of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government at the Harvard Kennedy School, and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. For more information about Education Next, please visit:

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