Johnny Can Read…in Some States

Education Next Issue Cover

Assessing the rigor of state assessment systems



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Summer 2005 / Vol. 5, No. 3

Johnny can’t read … in South Carolina. But if his folks move to Texas, he’ll be reading up a storm. What’s going on?

It turns out that in complying with the requirements of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), some states have decided to be a whole lot more generous than others in determining whether students are proficient at math and reading. While NCLB required all states to have accountability systems in place, it did not say specifically how much students should know at the end of 4th or any other grade.

Some states have risen to the challenge and set demanding proficiency levels for their students, while others have used lower standards to inflate reported performance. Not only is the disparity confusing, but, perversely enough, the states with the highest expectations often stand accused of having the most schools said to be in need of improvement-even when their students are doing relatively well.

Because of such disparities, the states with the highest standards will be tempted to lower their threshold for determining proficiency, especially when NCLB teeth begin to bite. With the passage of time, states may be tempted to race to the bottom, lowering expectations to ever lower levels so that fewer schools are identified as failing, even when no gains are being made.

Because each state selects its own testing system and sets its own passing scores, there is no direct way to compare the proficiency levels established by one state against the others. However, NCLB does require each state to administer the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) to a sample of students in 4th and 8th grade in reading and in mathematics. Comparing the percentage of students achieving proficiency on state tests with the percentage achieving proficiency on the NAEP suggests how demanding each state’s standards are.

For instance, if only 50 percent of a state’s 4th graders are proficient by the nationally determined NAEP standard, but the state claims proficiency for 80 percent, then the state should be given an F for its failure to establish high expectations for its students. But if a state with an equivalent score on the NAEP says only 45 percent are proficient, then it should be given an A for having standards that exceed even those of the NAEP.

In practice, only five states–South Carolina, Maine, Missouri, Wyoming, and Massachusetts–deserve the A grade. A lot more deserve Ds and Fs, the worst grades going to Tennessee, Texas, and Oklahoma.

To help citizens of every state know whether their state is maintaining high expectations for its students, Education Next plans to issue periodic assessments of how the states compare with one another. Figure 1 shows initial results for the 40 states for which both state and NAEP proficiency levels are currently available. In the future, it will be possible to compare all states with one another.

By reporting this straightforward, objective grading system, we hope to help eliminate some of the murkiness that still prevails. It would be even better if, as Caroline M. Hoxby recommends elsewhere in this issue (see “Inadequate Yearly Progress“), the federal government issued its own grade for each state.

Paul E. Peterson and Frederick M. Hess are editors of Education Next. Mark Linnen provided research assistance.

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  • Auth says:

    This is how to deal with both sides: is adult height gecleinatly or environmentally determined?As per usual, the answer is it depends. In areas where people are malnourished and there’s lots of childhood disease, everybody pretty much will be short except for those rich enough to get plenty of food — it will seem that nutrition and health are the determining factors, not genetics. In a place like the U.S., where kids get more than enough food, almost all height differences will be due to genetics. So what about academic achievement? Yes, many American students can do much better than they can do now, but that’s mainly because they have crappy schooling and are not putting much work into their education. So yeah, telling those kids that if they work hard they can do better educationally is not a lie. The majority of American students aren’t in danger of maxing out on what they can achieve academically.However, that doesn’t mean every child can achieve any academic level, no more than every kid can make it into the NBA, and some can achieve much more modestly than others. I have seen people maxing out in grad school, people maxing out on the actuarial exams, and people maxing out at much lower levels. I have several relatives who teach special education (of different levels), and though the mentally retarded can achieve much more than was thought decades ago, there is the realization that they have real cognitive limits. My grandmother retired from teaching when the state was trying to apply the same tests to her students as everybody else, as well as when they kept trying to cram those of normal intelligence but with “other issues” into her classes (probably to make the stats look better.) There’s no reason to believe that there’s a cliff of cognitive abilities and potentials, and it’s likely that like most other human characteristics there’s a continuum. I have no problem with setting high standards, but there’s got to be a realization that some people will never be able to get there, and you’ve got to think of what to do with those students.

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