The gap is narrowing between what states consider proficiency in math and reading — and the standards set by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), according to a new “mapping” study released Wednesday by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).
Comparing the 2017 NAEP results for 4th- and 8th-grade reading and math to state assessments for the 2016–17 school year, the report shows that since 2007, the difference between state cut scores for proficiency and the “NAEP equivalent” has grown smaller and is sometimes almost half of what it was. In all but 8th-grade math, the gap is also smaller than it was in 2015.
“The bottom is coming up,” Peggy Carr, the associate commissioner of assessment at NCES, said Tuesday during a media call, adding that she thinks states increasing their standards for proficiency “is a function of seeing themselves in the context of other states.”
In both grade levels and subject areas, most states set their proficiency standards at the level that would be considered basic on NAEP. In a few cases, however, states have raised their standards to be more in line with what NAEP considers proficient. In 4th-grade math, for example, the score needed to be proficient is on par with NAEP in nine states, a big change from 2007 when the standards were at NAEP’s “below basic” level in seven states. Now none of them are in that category.
In 4th- and 8th-grade math and in 8th-grade reading, states that are members of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) are closer to the NAEP proficiency range than states that are part of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium and those that use ACT Aspire.
Both consortia formed to assess students on Common Core, but the majority of states still have their own assessment programs. PARCC does not require all 8th-graders to take a general math assessment.
A debate over labels
The term proficient continues to engender confusion over just how well American students are performing academically and often means different things to different people. To NAEP it refers to high achievement or “mastery over challenging subject matter,” while many others interpret proficient as being on grade level.
That’s why NCES has conducted the mapping study, which the authors say should not be taken as a criticism of where states are setting their bars for proficiency.
“The mapping of the state standards does not imply that the NAEP achievement levels are more valid than the state standards or that states should emulate NAEP standards,” they write. “A wide range of policy considerations are involved in setting achievement standards, and what is appropriate for NAEP may not be the best fit for a given state.”
Some leaders say that the gap in definitions is counterproductive. James Harvey, executive director of the National Superintendents Roundtable (NSR), argues NAEP’s proficiency standards are “unrealistically high.”
The mapping study, he said will “place pressure on states to conform their standards to NAEP's” and “will contribute to ongoing misunderstanding on the part of the public and policymakers about school performance in this country.”
Last year, NSR and the Horace Mann League, a nonprofit, released a report saying that if 4th-graders in most other countries took the NAEP test in reading, less than a majority would reach the proficient level. And in 8th-grade math, at least half of students would meet the proficient level in only Singapore, Republic of Korea and Japan.
Because of the confusion, the two groups have recommended renaming the levels as low, intermediate, high and advanced — similar to tests used for international comparisons — instead of NAEP’s current below basic, basic, proficient and advanced.
Carr said the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets the achievement levels, has been “wringing its hands” over the issue and has conducted focus groups in an effort to make the message more clear. “There’s no silver bullet yet.”
She added that she uses the terms “NAEP proficient” and “NAEP basic” to try to distinguish state and NAEP levels.
NAEP proficient, she added, is an “aspirational goal,” while “states are more concerned about whether the student has knowledge commensurate with that grade level in order to promote them to the next level.”
Efforts to increase transparency
But others view states’ efforts to inch closer to NAEP’s standards as continued progress. In 2015, the Collaborative for Student Success, a nonprofit that advocated for the Common Core standards, launched a project called the Honesty Gap, which drew attention to the difference between states’ testing and reporting processes and NAEP’s standards. The site suggests states are misleading parents about their children’s performance by not communicating that difference.
“You’ve got to be honest with parents,” said Jim Cowen, the Collaborative's executive director.
Last week, the Collaborative also introduced a new effort to help school and district leaders, as well as families, gain a better understanding of how students are performing on state tests, regardless of how they line up with NAEP.
With AssessmentHQ, the goal, Cowen said, is to increase transparency in state assessment data. Currently including 29 states — those that have consistently used the same test for at least three years — the site shows state-level proficiency trends for grades 3 through 8 over time and displays results by subgroups.
Whether they are using Common Core or have their owns standards, states have increased expectations for students, Cowen said, but he added, “If you raise the bar and don’t have a good way of measuring it, then why raise the bar?”