State Standards Rise in Reading, Fall in Math

Paul Peterson and Carlos Xabel Lastra-Anadón
Year of publication: 
Fall 2010
Education Next

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.