'Honesty Gap' Misleads Parents and Educators on Student Proficiency

Who captures more accurate assessment results for a student — states or the federal government? According to a new report from education organization Achieve, disparities in student proficiency between state tests for English language arts (ELA) and math and the ones issued by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) can vary widely — by as much as 60 percentage points. More than half of the state results diverge from NAEP results by more than 30 percentage points.

Achieve is the independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit education reform organization that helped develop the Common Core State Standards. NAEP, also known as the "nation's report card," is considered the "gold standard" of student assessment for comparisons across all state lines.

According to Achieve, over the past two years, many states report proficiency rates considerably higher than their 2013 NAEP proficiency rates, giving parents and educators the impression that their students are succeeding in grade-level ELA and literacy and mathematics at greater rates than is actually the case.

NAEP defines proficiency as "solid academic performance" for each grade assessed. Students demonstrate competency over challenging subject matter, including the application of knowledge to real-world situations.

The report specifically compares state and NAEP proficiency rates for fourth grade reading and eighth grade math. Both of those are highlighted because they've been identified as "gateway" courses that reflect student success in those areas throughout the remainder of their school careers.

The Achieve report includes state-reported proficiency data from the 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 school years compared to 2013 NAEP results.

In fourth grade reading, Georgia shows the greatest disparity — a 60 percentage point difference between the number of students identified as proficient by NAEP (between 30 and 40 percent) and the number identified through state assessment (between 90 and 100 percent). Louisiana shows a 53 point difference, and Alaska and Arkansas 51 point differences.

The top "truth tellers" for math — the states where the gap between proficiency levels reported by the state and those reported by NAEP are closest — are New York, Wisconsin, Utah, Alabama and Massachusetts.

For eighth grade math, Georgia has a 53 percentage point disparity, followed by Texas with a 48 point difference and the District of Columbia and Mississippi with 46 point gaps.

For math, the top truth tellers are New York, Massachusetts, Utah and Michigan.

Several states, including California, weren't included in the comparisons because the states piloted the Smarter Balanced assessment and didn't report state-level proficiencies for the year.

Some states have made progress in closing the honesty gap by switching to new assessments aligned to their college- and career-ready state academic standards in the 2013-2014 school year.

The report comes out just as many states are seeing results from new online assessments based on the Common Core standards developed through state consortia Smarter Balanced and PARCC. Some states are undergoing political pressure to abandon those new assessments.

"If we want to improve educational outcomes for children, we need to have good assessments and be honest about the results," said Michael Cohen, president of Achieve. "Giving tests that are well-aligned to rigorous standards is an important step. To provide students, parents and educators with more accurate information, states must also set rigorous 'cut scores' so that 'proficiency' means that students have a solid grasp of the material. Leaders in many states are already taking steps in this direction."

The Achieve report, "Proficient vs. Prepared: Disparities between State Tests and the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress," is available on the Achieve Web site.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at or on Twitter @schaffhauser.

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