State Standards Rise in Reading, Fall in Math

Education Next Issue Cover

Most state standards remain far below international level, with Tennessee, a Race to the Top Winner, at the very bottom



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Fall 2010 / Vol. 10, No. 4

Podcast: Paul Peterson and Chester E. Finn, Jr. talk about why Tennessee and Delaware were the big winners of round 1 of Race to the Top.

The data used to determine the grades in Figure 1 are available here.


Much ado has been made about setting high standards over the past year. In his first major address on education policy, given just two months after he took the oath of office, President Barack Obama put the issue on the national agenda. They ought “to stop lowballing expectations for our kids,” he said, adding that “the solution to low test scores is not lowering standards—it’s tougher, clearer standards.” In March 2010, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan accused educators of having “lowered the bar” so they could meet the requirements set by the federal education law, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which requires that all students be proficient in reading and math by the year 2014.

Current conversations about creating a common national standard largely focus on the substantive curriculum to be taught at various grade levels. Even more important, we submit, is each state’s expectations for student performance with respect to the curriculum, as expressed through its proficiency standard. Curricula can be perfectly designed, but if the proficiency bar is set very low, little is accomplished by setting the content standards in the first place.

To see whether states are setting proficiency bars in such a way that they are “lowballing expectations” and have “lowered the bar” for students in 4th- and 8th-grade reading and math, Education Next has used information from the recently released 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) to evaluate empirically the proficiency standards each state has established. This report is the fourth in a series in which we periodically assess the rigor of these standards (see “Johnny Can Read…in Some States,” features, Summer 2005; “Keeping an Eye on State Standards,” features, Summer 2006; and “Few States Set World-Class Standards,” check the facts, Summer 2008).

The 2009 NAEP tests in reading and math were given to a representative sample of students in 4th- and 8th-grade in each state. NAEP, called “the nation’s report card,” is managed by the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics and is currently the “gold standard” of assessments. Its proficiency standard is roughly equivalent to the international standard established by those industrialized nations that are members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). If a state identifies no higher a percentage of students as being proficient on its own tests than NAEP does, then the state can be said to have set its standards at a world-class level. To ascertain objectively whether state standards are high or low, and whether they are rising or falling, we compare the percentage of students deemed proficient by each state with the percentage proficient as measured by NAEP. The state assessment data used in this report consist of those compiled in 2009 by the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

States have strong incentives not to set world-class standards. If they do, more of their schools will be identified as failing under NCLB rules, and states will then be required to take corrective actions to bring students’ performance up to the higher standard. As a result, the temptation for states to “lowball expectations” is substantial. Perhaps for this reason, a sharp disparity between NAEP standards and the standards in most states has been identified in all of our previous reports. In 2009, the situation improved in reading, but deteriorated further in math.

Every state, for both reading and math (with the exception of Massachusetts for math), deems more students “proficient” on its own assessments than NAEP does. The average difference is a startling 37 percentage points. In Figure 1, we provide a uniform ranking of the rigor of state standards using the same A to F scale used to grade students (see sidebar for the specifics on the methodology we used).

Racing to the Top?

Ironically, Tennessee received an F and had the lowest standards of all states, despite the fact that it is one of the two winners in the first phase of the bitterly contested Race to the Top (RttT) competition sponsored by the Obama administration’s Department of Education. Indeed, Tennessee has had the lowest standards of all states since 2003. Based on its own tests and standards, the state claimed in 2009 that over 90 percent of its 4th-grade students were proficient in math, whereas NAEP tests revealed that only 28 percent were performing at a proficient level. Results in 4th-grade reading and at the 8th-grade level are much the same. With such divergence, the concept of “standard” has lost all meaning. It’s as if a yardstick can be 36 inches long in most of the world, but 3 inches long in Tennessee.

Delaware, the other RttT First Phase winner, also had below-average standards, for which we awarded a grade of C- and ranked it 36th of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Delaware claimed that 77 percent of its 4th-grade students were proficient in math, when NAEP shows that only 36 percent were. In 8th-grade reading, Delaware said 81 percent of its students were proficient, but NAEP put the figure at 31 percent.

From these findings one might conclude that the Obama administration is having a huge policy impact by getting states like Tennessee and Delaware to set standards they have been unwilling to establish in the past. But Tennessee earned almost full marks (98 percent) on the section of the competition (weighted a substantial 14 percent of all possible points) devoted to “adopting standards and assessments,” even though its standards have remained extremely low ever since the federal accountability law took hold. The proof will be in the pudding. If Tennessee and Delaware and other states now shift their standards dramatically upward, RttT will win over those who think it is performance, rather than promises, that should be rewarded.

Disparities in State Standards

Despite the incentive to lowball expectations, five states—Hawaii, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Mexico, and Washington—have set their standards at or close to the world-class level, earning them an A. Notice that we award grades purely for the expected standard for performance, not actual proficiency. New Mexico earned the same mark as Massachusetts, even though only about one-quarter of its students are proficient, while half of Massachusetts students score at that level. The two deserve equal grades, however, because both are rigorous in their expectations. Another eight states—Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Vermont—earned a B for their standards.

President Obama is undoubtedly correct, however, in suggesting that many states are “lowballing expectations.” Of the remaining 38 states, 27 earned a C, and 8—Arizona, Idaho, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, New York, Texas, and Virginia—a D. Three states—Alabama, Nebraska, and Tennessee—had such low standards that we awarded them an F. All of the states that earned grades of F have been ranked D or below in all three of our previous reports. This suggests that once a standard, however low, has been set, it tends to persist—another reason to be concerned about promises from Delaware and Tennessee.

Changes in Standards

Secretary of Education Duncan is not altogether correct in suggesting that educators are lowering the bar, however. Figure 2 shows that in 2009 the differences between state and NAEP standards shrank by 0.08 standard deviations as compared to the average for the three prior surveys. This is a reversal of the trend of declining standards we observed between 2003 and 2007. Eight states improved the overall rigor of their assessments by a full letter grade or more since 2007: Georgia, Mississippi, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah, and West Virginia. By contrast, we gave just four states—Alaska, California, New York, and South Carolina—grades that were at least a full letter grade worse than they received in 2007.

The reversal in the overall trend is, however, driven wholly by an improvement in the rigor of reading assessments, which set expectations that are higher by 0.49 standard deviations in 4th grade and by 0.26 standard deviations in 8th grade. As a matter of fact, 17 states increased the rigor of their 4th-grade reading assessments by a whole letter grade since 2007, and 17 states did the same for 8th grade. But math standards have slipped by 0.12 standard deviations in 4th grade and by 0.31 in 8th grade. This means that at least some of the state-reported improvements in mathematics proficiency are misleading.

Converging on a De Facto National Standard?

Most changes to standards, as we noted, have been fairly small: only 12 states have made changes to their standards that alter their standing by a whole letter grade. But since our last report two states, Hawaii and South Carolina, have made major alterations to state assessments. The results of these moves have been at odds: while Hawaii’s increased alignment with NAEP raised its grade from a B+ in 2007 to an A, South Carolina dropped from an A to a C-.

States nonetheless seem to be continuing their trajectory of convergence toward standards of similar rigor in math (which, given the slipping standards noted above, constitutes a downward convergence), but are more divergent in reading since 2007, particularly in 4th grade. If the convergence of math standards were to continue, we could gradually attain something like a national standard. But it would take a great deal of national patience to achieve a national standard by convergence creep.

In this report, as in previous ones, we assess the rigor of standards that states set. This is an important task, as it reminds states that whether students have or have not learned cannot be a matter of how the test is designed and where the “proficiency line” is drawn. Rather, setting high standards for proficiency is the first step in the journey toward actually improving the learning of a high percentage of students. According to NAEP, less than one-third of students are proficient in reading and a similar proportion in math nationwide. For the sake of the children of this country, we should be doing much better than that.

Paul E. Peterson is professor of government at Harvard University, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, and editor-in-chief at Education Next. Carlos Xabel Lastra-Anadón is a research fellow at the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University.




Comment on this article
  • Crystal says:

    With all the information out there about testing scores and how the states can manipulate things- I wonder if there is a place where parents can obtain testing for our children- a test that will be graded and returned to the parents so that we can go to our schools, districts and secretary of educations and show them where our kids rank in relation to a national standard. Then be able to demand that they take care of the cost and tutoring to get our child to the appropriate level.

    Also it sickens me when we in the US use the term “World Class” when referring to our education system. We are in no way shape or form world class. Take a look at any of the other countries & what their students are studying at the same grade as ours and you will see we fall way behind.

    Another example- how many of our children speak multiple languages? And I’m not talking about people who are recent immigrants. Look at other countries- they speak their native tongue, and at LEAST 2 other languages- in addition to English.

  • [...] 8, 2010 at 7:50 pm Paul Peterson and Carlos Xabel Lastra-Anadón of Education Next recently wrote a report about the improvement (or lack thereof, depending) in state standards across the US. They compared [...]

  • Elizabeth Chaisson says:

    I, for one, think most states should offer the choice of two different Diplomas to their HS students. In the 70′s and 80′s, NY State offered the Regents Diploma, which was, hopefully, based on the “gold” or “world-class” standard, and the Non-Regents Diploma, which I assume was based on the more achievable proficiency level of the majority of students graduating from NY public high schools at that time in history.

    If we focused on ‘closing the gap’ between these 2 types of Diplomas in each state, we could more accurately measure our progress towards achieving a more educated group of voting citizens in the years ahead! (That was our original purpose in funding public education in the U.S., was it not?)

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  • Paul says:

    This article is quite misleading to the point that it verges on sloppily inaccurate. The reason Tennessee was rewarded on standards is because the Governor, legislature and State Board of Education stepped forward, acknowledged the weak standards and began summarily tearing them to shreds in ’08. The ’09-’10 school year was the first year in which the new standards actually took hold. So that movement isn’t reflected in the data you’re examining. And just last week, the state approved tweaking its new standards to align with Common Core. Tennessee has moved farther, faster than any other state in the country. The leadership in Tennessee should be applauded. And this article should be tagged with a big asterisk for its blatant error of omission.

  • Sally Johnson says:

    I really feel bad to see our kids falling behind in Maths. Yesterday, I was reading an article about “How Asian Kids are Better than US kids in Math”.. We seriously need to focus on that. With many states accepting common core standard and many more to join in.. I believe that the condition will definitely improve.. Our kids hate math and that is a point of major concern..
    I was surprised to see kids to have interest in online math programs..I think they find it interesting..Out of curiosity I just checked the sites to find dreambox.com, http://www.tenmarks.com, http://www.alex.com,www.mathmamoth.com…..and I realise that these online math programs are actually interesting..Our educators must consider this too..

    As an educator and as a mum of an 8 year old kid..I really get upset to see such condition of our math pedagogy..

    Besides kids, I believe

  • AS says:

    Another good math practice websites are ,
    http://wwww.examhelp.in
    http://www.edhelper.com

    First one is free while second one is paid.

  • [...] His argument was that Texas curriculum is just fine and dandy like sour candy…despite that several studies have consistently ranked Texas state proficiency standards with a D in rigor for nearly all of [...]

  • May says:

    Tennessee has changed the state standards since this information has been viewed by the state, and this is part of the reason they were chosen for Race to the Top Funds. The standards have been change so much in fact, that 4th and 5th grade teachers are having to go to 7th and 8th grade text books to find the information and resources to teach their students. These standards have only been going on for two years, which is not even long enough for TN state teachers to fill in the gaps left by the old standards. This year TN is adopting common core for grades K-2, then in 2012-2013 for 3-4, and then in 2013-1014 for 5-12. TN also has changed their teacher tenure and evaluation process. TN seems to be moving in the right direction, so I don’t feel that this is a fair report for them.

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  • Miwako says:

    (to Caroline) I think the biggest point of the reprot is that third grade is major benchmark and has to be a focus for teachers, schools and districts. I’m sure many of us have heard that states project their prison population going forward by how many kids are NOT reading at grade level in third grade. As the reprot notes, if you are behind at this point it becomes less likely you’ll ever catch up. The emphasis on third grade reading is one being taken very seriously in my own school now. However, not so long ago, there were several teachers in our lowest grades that had the attitude that kids would just catch up , that there wasn’t that much to worry about as kids would just make it up at their own pace. For all the obvious reasons, this becomes problematic pushing the problem off another year to another teacher. Each year the teacher has to bring them up MORE than a grade level to be AT grade level by the end of the year. My son was blessed with a fantastic 3rd grade teacher who literally brought him from behind grade level in several areas of language arts, to above grade level by the end of the year. It wasn’t what any of us thought was possible (she was the one who taught me that, at best, a student usually can only grow a grade level and a half in a school year.)I was happy to see this highlighted as a focus in the Annie P Casey reprot. There are many paths to get there including (as your link suggests) reducing poverty, increasing access to books, etc. But also establishing clear goals and benchmarks and measuring it through assessment in these early grades is critical to ensure we get kids to be readers in 3rd grade. On a similar note: I’m listening to Po Bronsen’s Nurture Shock which reviews the current scientific research on children’s learning and development and am struck by how much happens long before kids can even walk. Talking and responding to your baby leads to language and vocabulary development, which ultimately leads to reading and writing skills, for example. I highly recommend this book.

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