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Education Performance Standards Vary Among States by as Much as Four Grade Levels

Gary PhillipsAccording to a new study by the American Institutes for Research (AIR), the proficiency standards that states use to measure student progress vary widely. In fact, International Benchmarking: State and National Education Performance Standards found that the gap between states with the highest and lowest standards can be as much as three or four grade levels.

The study looked at the proficiency standards that states use for reading, mathematics and science. It compared those standards with student achievement levels used in two international assessments: the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS).

When No Child Left Behind was enacted in 2001, it required states to show steady improvement in student performance in reading and math, with the goal of having all students proficient by 2014. Each state was responsible for setting the standards to measure and defining the term “proficiency.”

Gary Phillips (pictured), an AIR vice president and institute fellow, conducted the study by examining the percentage of proficient students reported by the states in 2011 in fourth-grade math and reading and in eighth-grade math and science. He then compared the difficulty of performance standards across states by converting the state standards to the metric of TIMSS and PIRLS.

Key findings include the following:

States reporting the highest percentage of proficient students had the lowest performance standards. More than two-thirds of the difference in state success was related to how high or low the states set their performance standards. 

The difference between the states with the highest and lowest standards is about two standard deviations. In many testing programs, a gap this large represents three to four grade levels.

The percentage of proficient students for most states declined when compared with international standards. In eight-grade math, for example, Alabama went from 77 percent proficient to 15 percent; Colorado from 80 percent to 35 percent; and Oklahoma from 66 percent to 20 percent.

Phillips commented, “Residents of some states think their students are doing well because almost all of them are considered proficient.” But, he added, “This study shows there is considerable variance in state performance standards, with a wide expectations gap that most parents have no idea exists.”

Phillips used international benchmarks to grade states by statistically linking state tests to the state National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), then linking national NAEP to national TIMSS or PIRLS data.

In eighth-grade math, Massachusetts and Minnesota had the highest grades, with each receiving a B-. The lowest grades went to Alabama and Georgia, both of which received a D.

While opponents continue to oppose the Common Core State Standards, Phillips concluded, “Fifty states going in 50 different directions is not a strategy for national success in a globally competitive world. It may look good for federal reporting purposes, but it denies students the best opportunity to learn college-ready and career-ready skills.”

About the Author

Christopher Piehler is the former editor-in-chief of THE Journal.

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