So Far Only Ohio is Backing Off A High Standard for Proficiency

By 10/16/2015

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Way back in 2007, we at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute published a landmark study with experts from the Northwest Evaluation Association: The Proficiency Illusion. It found that state definitions for reading and math “proficiency” were all over the map—and shockingly subpar almost everywhere. In Wisconsin, for instance, eighth graders could be reading at the fourteenth percentile nationally and still be considered proficient.

This was a big problem—not just the inconsistency, though that surely made it harder to compare schools across state lines. Mostly, we worried about the signals that low proficiency standards sent to parents: the false positives indicating that their kids were on track for success when they actually weren’t. How were parents in Madison or Duluth supposed to know that their “proficient” son was really far below grade level, not to mention way off track for success in college and career?

That was one of the main reasons we started pushing for national standards and tests (what would eventually become the Common Core). We wanted parents to know the truth about how their children were faring in school—and wanted educators to aim for higher expectations in their teaching. After years of lackluster progress with state-by-state standards, we thought an interstate approach might work better.

Fast-forward eight years; the scores from last spring’s Common Core-aligned tests are finally trickling in from states across the country. As Motoko Rich astutely pointed out in a New York Times article last week, Ohio fell short, setting a standard for proficiency that is well below “college and career ready.” The Ohio Department of Education and state school board claim that their hands are tied by a statute that requires reporting against five prescribed performance levels, and that does seem to be true. (But that just means that State Superintendent Dick Ross and his board members should demand that law to be changed and make sure parents get honest and transparent information about their kids’ performance.)

What Rich’s article didn’t make clear enough is that Ohio is the rare exception. The rule is that states are moving aggressively—and impressively—in the direction of higher standards and more honest definitions of proficiency. This was happening even before the introduction of tougher tests last spring. An analysis by Paul Peterson and Matthew Ackerman for Education Next found a significant closing of the “honesty gap” between 2011 and 2013. “Twenty states strengthened their standards,” they wrote, “while just eight loosened them. In other words, a key objective of the [Common Core] consortium—the raising of state proficiency standards—has begun to happen.”

State tests have only gotten tougher since then. Georgia’s fourth-grade reading proficiency rate dropped from close to 100 percent in 2013 to less than 40 percent in 2015—not because the kids were doing worse, but because the state’s measure of how they were doing was getting closer to the truth. Oregon went from having 70 percent of students on track in reading to around 30 percent. In Delaware, the math proficiency rate for eighth graders has gone from over 60 percent to below 40 percent. Similar trends can be seen in the other states that have published last year’s scores.

To be sure, we still need to keep a watchful eye. States using the Smarter Balanced exam, for instance, have been reporting that 50 percent or more of their students are on track in English. That is significantly higher than what the National Assessment of Educational Progress finds for the country as a whole. Policymakers in Florida are facing decisions on where to set cut scores, and there are reasons to fret that some might want to go wobbly. The reports that states plan to send parents are still way too confusing. And there are worrying indications that some reformers are too willing to use questionable data out of Kentucky (62 percent college ready!) to prove that Common Core is working when they might just as well show that another honesty gap is opening up. (Does anyone really believe that close to two-thirds of Kentucky’s kids are on track for college success when the national numbers haven’t reached 40 percent?)

But let’s not bury the lede. Outside of Ohio, most states are living up to their commitments to provide more honest information to parents. A key promise of the Common Core is being kept.

– Mike Petrilli

This post originally appeared in a slightly different form on the Seventy Four; that one also lambasted Arkansas for backpedaling on its cut scores. Since then, Arkansas acknowledged that it had erred in how it described the state’s performance levels and clarified that it would use the rigorous standards suggested by PARCC.

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