States Raise Proficiency Standards in Math and Reading

Paul E. Peterson and Matthew Ackerman
Year of publication: 
Education Next

Since No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was enacted into federal law in 2002, states have been required to test students in grades 3 through 8 and again in high school to assess math and reading achievement. The federal law also asks states to establish the performance level students must reach on the exams in order to be identified as “proficient.” According to NCLB, each school was expected to increase the percentage of proficient students at a rate that would ensure that all students were proficient by the year 2014. Student proficiency rates have been publicly reported every year for schools in every state as well as for the state as a whole. Importantly, each state chooses its own tests and sets its own proficiency bar.

NCLB also requires the periodic administration of tests in selected subjects to a representative sample of students in 4th and 8th grade as part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as the nation’s report card, which is administered under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Education. The performance levels considered proficient on NAEP tests are roughly equivalent to those set by international organizations that estimate student proficiency worldwide.

The availability of data from both NAEP and from tests administered by each state allows for periodic estimates of the rigor of each state’s proficiency standards. If the percentage of students identified as proficient in any given year is essentially the same for both the NAEP exam and for a state’s tests, it may be inferred that the state has established as rigorous a proficiency standard as that set by NAEP. But if percentages of students identified as proficient are higher on a state’s own tests than on NAEP tests, then it may be concluded that the state has set its proficiency bar lower than the NAEP standard.

Since NCLB was enacted into law, Education Next has used this information to identify the rigor of state proficiency standards each time the results from state and NAEP tests have become available. This is the sixth in a series of reports that grade state proficiency standards on the traditional A-to-F scale used to evaluate students. Each state is graded according to the size of the differential between the percentages of students identified as proficient by the state and the percentages identified by NAEP on the 4th- and 8th-grade math and reading exams. In the five previous reports (most recently, “Despite Common Core, States Still Lack Common Standards,” features, Fall 2013), it has been shown that proficiency standards in the average state have been set at a much lower level than those set by NAEP. Also, the reports reveal wide variation among the states in the standards they have established. Further, prior reports have shown that up until 2011 the proficiency standards set by states initially did not, on average, rise significantly.

In 2009, with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers formed a consortium that established the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), curricular standards that outline what students should know and be able to do at each grade level. Many states have committed themselves to implementing “college and career ready” standards, such as those outlined in CCSS, in exchange for receiving a waiver from many NCLB regulations granted by the U.S. Department of Education. So far, 44 states and the District of Columbia have adopted CCSS for at least one subject. One of the consortium’s goals is to encourage states to set proficiency levels that are on par with those set by NAEP.

In this paper we extend the five prior analyses by identifying the changes in state proficiency standards between 2011 and 2013, the last year for which the relevant information is available. We show that many states have raised their proficiency bars since 2011. Indeed, the 2013 data reveal that for the first time, substantially more states have raised their proficiency standards than have let those standards slip to lower levels. Overall, 20 states strengthened their standards, while just 8 loosened them. In other words, a key objective of the CCSS consortium—the raising of state proficiency standards—has begun to happen.

Still, these advances have been marginal. There is more than enough room for growth, especially among the states that have yet to adopt CCSS.