States Getting More Forthcoming about Student Proficiency Levels

With a few exceptions, the "honesty gap" is closing. That's the phrase that was used in a report issued last year by education non-profit Achieve to describe disparities that surfaced in the results of student proficiency as rated by the state tests for English language arts (ELA) and math and the ones issued by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

The original differences came in a comparison of state testing results taken during the 2013-2014 school year and the results of NAEP scores from 2013. A new report compares 2014-2015 state-measured proficiency levels to 2015 NAEP results. The initial study found that half of all states had a gap of 30 percentage points or more in either grade 4 reading, grade 8 math or both. The latest findings show that 16 states have eliminated or nearly eliminated their gap in one or more subject areas, squeezing the difference in state scores to within five percentage points of NAEP scores. Nine other states are heading in the "right direction" by narrowing gaps by 10 percentage points or more.

Achieve is an 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. All 50 states and the District of Columbia participate in NAEP. The NAEP state assessments cover reading, math, science and writing at a sampling of schools among a sampling of students. In an "average" state, according to the Institute of Education Sciences, a United States Department of Education center that administers NAEP, about 2,500 students in about 100 public schools are assessed per grade for each subject.

The Achieve comparison examines proficiency rates for assessment. NAEP defines proficiency as "solid academic performance." Students considered proficient have shown competency over "challenging" subject matter and have the ability to apply their knowledge to real-world situations.

The latest comparison found that three states continued to have moderate gaps between five and 20 percentage points: Alaska, Kentucky and Maine.

Two states' gaps remained about the same, with at least one gap higher than 20 percentage points: North Carolina and Tennessee.

Four states are showing intransigence, insisting, according to the report, that "far more students are proficient than their NAEP scores indicate." Those states are Iowa, Oklahoma, Texas and Virginia. The largest gap appears in Texas, where the newest comparison shows a gap of -43 percentage points for both grade 4 reading and grade 8 math. That said, even there, the gap has shrunk from -46 and -48 percentage points, respectively.

Three states showed no or tiny gaps last year and maintained that small gap this year: Massachusetts, New York and Utah.

Georgia and Arkansas made the most dramatic turnaround in "closing" the honesty gap, according to the results. Georgia shifted from -60 percentage points in the earlier comparison to only -3 percentage points in the latest one for grade 4 reading; for grade 8 math, the difference shrunk from -53 to -9 percentage points. Arkansas' difference in scores dropped from -51 percentage points to -2 in grade 4 reading; it dropped from -36 to +8 percentage points in grade 8 math.

"We're pleased to see so many states being transparent about student performance," said Sandy Boyd, chief operating officer of Achieve, in a prepared statement. "Parents and educators deserve accurate information about how well students are performing. The transition to college- and career-ready assessments in many states is an important step and while tests are not the only indicator of readiness, they are an important one. If we want to move the needle on student outcomes, we need to be clear about student performance; only then can we help students improve."

The two-page report is available on the Achieve Web site.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.