Civitas Review

Quality proficiency standards lacking in most states.


The development of strong state academic standards were considered a major selling point for No Child Left Behind legislation. They gave states flexibility and also provided a means by which the feds would gauge progress. How have the states done in developing useful and academically rigorous standards?  The record is a mixed bag at best. That's the assessment of a  new study by Harvard University researchers Paul Peterson and  Carlos Xabel Lastra-Anadon and reported on the web site of the influential education reform journal Education Next.

In the report the authors compared the percentage of students who were classified as “proficient” by state standards with the percentage of students deemed proficient under the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Grades were then assigned based on the level of divergence from NAEP scores on math and reading for 2009.  Peterson has done similar tests in previous years (e.g. 2003, 2005, and 2007). He writes about last year's results here

What did Peterson find?

Every state, for both reading and math (with the exception of Massachusetts for math), deems more students “proficient” on its own assessments than NAEP does. The average difference is a startling 37 percentage points.

As far as trend lines, the authors found there has been a little improvement in reading scores while state scores for math actually worsened.  

How does North Carolina fare? Peterson gave the Tar Heel state a C. The two states that received Race to the Top Funds, Delaware and Tennessee received grades of C- and F respectively.

This last development raises a whole set of other questions. Does the data confirm what many of us have thought for a long time: states have no incentives to set high standards? Also, what does it say about Race-to-the-Top, when the “winners” have below average and failing standards?  Are the feds once again merely rewarding mediocrity and failure?